Sunday, February 15, 2015

"This is why people think they dislike opera": Verdi's Aida

Halfway through the Emmy-Award-winning video of the Metropolitan Opera's 1989 production of Verdi's Aida, I turned to my partner and said, "This is why people think they dislike opera."

The problem isn't the level of artistry on display. The cast is filled with stars, who are all in excellent voice: Plácido Domingo, Aprile Millo, Dolora Zajick, Sherrill Milnes. In 1989 James Levine, the conductor, was in his 17th year as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which is deservedly considered one of the premier orchestras in the world. So the music, which includes some of Verdi's most beloved arias and instrumental interludes, is performed at a very high level.

But opera is not just music, it is also theater; and that's where the problems come in.

The libretto. Despite its four-act length and the huge cast it requires, Aida is one of the most frequently performed operas. According to the Repertory Report, in the Metropolitan Opera's history it is second only to Puccini's La bohème in the number of performances (more than 1100; on average, one out of every 25 performances at the Met has been of Aida).

But in spite of its popularity, I've somehow managed not to see Aida until now (Elton John's version doesn't count), and I was surprised at how dramatically static much of it is. In Antonio Ghislanzoni's libretto scenes of conflict alternate with scenes that do nothing to advance the action or give us a greater insight into the characters' emotional dilemmas.

In the first scene, we're introduced to the central love triangle, in which the Egyptian warrior Radamès (Domingo), who is loved by the Egyptian princess Amneris (Zajick), instead loves the captive Ethiopian princess Aida (Millo). We also learn that an Ethiopian army has invaded Egypt, and that Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and her loyalty to her country and to her father, the Ethiopian king Amonasro (Milnes). But in the scene that immediately follows these urgent revelations, Radames is slowly—very slowly—girded and armed for battle at the Temple of "Vulcan" (the Egyptian god Ptah). This scene brings everything to a screeching halt.

This same pattern is followed in the next act. After a key confrontation between Aida and Amneris, in which Amneris falsely tells Aida that Radamès has been killed in order to learn her true feelings about him, the next scene is the famous triumphal march, which features a seemingly endless parade of supernumeraries striding across the stage in a victory celebration that goes on, and on.

Aida was commissioned for the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo in 1871, so perhaps that's one explanation for its emphasis on ceremony. But ceremony does not make for compelling drama. For some, this is the sort of thing that makes grand opera grand, but in my view Verdi could easily have cut an act's worth of inaction from Aida. Finally in Acts III and IV the story is moved forward: Radamès decides to flee with Aida and Amonasro, only to have their plans overheard by Amneris—but the eruption of passion and conflict takes too long to arrive.

The production. Sonja Frisell's production has been hugely popular at the Met: it has been in the repertory since 1988, and is still being used (it was most recently revived this very season). It is based on elements of the original 1871 premieres in Cairo and Italy, as well as other 19th-century productions. In its echoes of those productions, whose costumes and sets were based on then-recently discovered ancient Egyptian artifacts, ruins, and wall paintings, the Met's version is striving for some sort of authenticity (whatever that might mean in the context of opera, the most artificial of art forms). But whatever the intention, too often the result is incongruous. Domingo, a handsome and elegant man, is made to look distinctly inelegant in Dada Saligeri's costumes:

The costumes do no favors for Dolora Zajick, either; her lapis peacock headdress looks more like a turquoise turkey:

These designs were evidently based on those for early productions of Aida:

Knowing this, though, doesn't make them less distracting.

Another incongruity: note the weathered, half-buried ruins:

The opera is set at a time when the Old Kingdom at the height of its power, and so it makes no sense for the characters to be wandering among ruins. Perhaps the ruins are mean to suggest the lesson of Shelley's Ozymandias about the ultimate fate of all empires, or perhaps (like the costumes?) they are meant to provide a frame of the 19th-century archaeological fascination with Egypt. But since everything else in the production seems to be functioning on a literal rather than symbolic level, having the characters stepping around ruins on Gianni Quaranta's sets just looks anachronistic.

And the less said about Rodney Griffin's choreography for the dance interludes, the better:

But unflattering costumes, anachronistic sets and awkward choreography could be overlooked. There is something about this production can't be overlooked, though:

Millo and Milnes, Ethiopian characters portrayed by white singers, perform in brownface.

Race is an important issue in Aida: the love of Radamès and Aida crosses not only boundaries of national enmity, but of ethnicity. If this is something you want to emphasize in your production, my suggestion would be to hire African-American singers. If you want a particular singer in a role regardless of the identity of the character, then I'd suggest color-blind casting. At the Met and elsewhere the great African-American soprano Leontyne Price portrayed Cio-Cio San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Liu in Puccini's Turandot, and Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. It amazes me that a major cultural institution in the late 20th century would think that putting white singers in brownface was an acceptable practice.

As I say, if Verdian grand opera is to your taste, the musical qualities of this performance are outstanding. But I think in the future if we're ever tempted to put this Aida on again, we'll leave the picture off.

Update 4 August 2015: For the upcoming production of Verdi's Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, the white tenor performing the title role will not wear blackface. The New York Times article reporting this departure from operatic tradition quotes the Met's general manager Peter Gelb as saying "That was a tradition that needed to be changed." I'm hopeful that the next production of Aida will also be blackface-free.


  1. Aida has my favorite "individual" pieces of any opera I've heard (to be fair--usually I'll catch them in part on the radio, etc. in a nonvisual setting). And as far as listening to it all the way through, it's probably the only opera I've done so with multiple times (mostly the Leontyne Price version). However, there's that ENDLESS processional sequence that I can imagine is awful on stage ... even if it was a huge exotic attraction in the 19th century... I can't imagine it holds up well to today's taste or ethical sensibilities.

  2. Miranda, many thanks for your comment. Once again you demonstrate your excellent taste: Leontyne Price was possibly the greatest Aida of all time, and there are incontrovertible musical reasons why this opera remains one of the most popular ever. Radames' "Celeste Aida," Aida's "“Ritorna vincitor!”, and the lovers' duet “O terra addio” are among the most famous arias ever written.

    But the Met's production is ponderous (in part thanks to the clunky libretto), visually unappealing, racially insensitive...and old-fashioned. I'm anything but an exponent of Regietheater, but I can't imagine anyone of my generation or younger actually enjoying this production. As I say, I think in the future we'll listen to it with the picture off.



  3. You have got to be kidding. By your rationale no African american could play any role in opera written for a white woman. Or a white man. Try most if them. Yet they do thank God. Absurd. The production is workable compared to the crap they use now a days. Sorry this is just rascism in reverse.

  4. Anonymous, I think if you reread my next-to-last paragraph you'll see that you've misunderstood what I wrote. Far from opposing color-blind casting, I explicitly suggest it, giving the example of Leontyne Price (who often performed at the Metropolitan Opera).

    As I write in the post, I find brownface unacceptable. If you think brownface is necessary for white performers portraying African roles, do you think whiteface is necessary for African-American performers portraying European roles? If the answer is no, perhaps you should reconsider whether brownface is "workable."