The King: A. Papi
Amneris: L. Overmann
Aida: N. Edwards
Radames: A. Palombi
Ramfis: D. Kavrakos
Amonasro: A. Mastromarino
Conductor: Isaac Karabtchevsky
Director: Mauro Bolognini
A grand-opéra in all but name, Aida has all the requisite elements of magnificent ensembles, ballet and spectacle but also the same emotional distance between the characters and the audience that is inherent in that form and essentially uncharacteristic of Verdi's oeuvre. Another anomalous element is the fact that the plot has a non-literary source (via a sketch by the Egyptologist Mariette, who supervised sets and costumes for the Cairo premiere), a rare phenomenon in opera of the nineteenth century or for that matter any other period. Verdi's involvement in every aspect of the opera from idea to final production in Egypt and Milan is legendary, but he lavished the most attention on the choice of words in the libretto. Although Aida is often considered to be a pure product of the potted palm era, the classic lovevs. duty conflict is made all the more compelling by the cultural juxtaposition of the civilized vs. the savage. The basic story of the commissioning of the opera is well enough known, but an essay in the Fenice program pointed out that there were two backups should the Italian composer prove too difficult-none other than Wagner and Gounod!
The production directed by Mauro Bolognini via Bepi Morassi employed a unit set featuring a wide wood-toned bridge across mid-stage creating a two-level playing area conveniently in place for the final tomb scene. Set designer Mario Ceroli flanked the stage with oversized cutouts of Nubians. One consequence of the current lack of backstage facilities at the PalaFenice is that the final chorus sang from the wings was at the level of Aida and Radames rather than higher up with Amneris. This was a sober, efficient production: there were no animals and such for the Triumphal scene. Instead, in an inspired choice, the Danza Contemporanea company was brought from Cuba to perform in the ballet sequences for Acts I and II, the latter staged as a series of entrées. While Giovanni Di Cicco's choreography left much to be desired, the warriors dressed in yellow for the Triumphal Scene came off well as did the women in lemon turbans and bikinis. Mr. Morassi must have raided the local gym to end up with so many body builder guards and attendants. Although most of the action was well-conceived, it would be interesting to know what Aida was pointing to while gazing out into the audience toward the end of Act IV or how Radames found her without once searching. The soloists had to wander about in relative darkness during the Act III Nile Scene, but two big spots were directed on the conductor. The costumes by Aldo Buti forthe Egyptians featured stiff hanging panels in front that kept twisting about.
American Nina Edwards sang the title role well in spite of swooping from note to note like Leontyne Price did in her day and breaking phrases like another well-known Aida, Leona Mitchell. Consciously adding a Price-like color could easily turn into a mannerism, just like her occasionally overshooting the top notes. Leandra Overmann grew both vocally and histrionically as Amneris until her truly smashing Judgement Scene. Lacking the benefit of large facial features, she was best when her actions were least subtle. As Radames young Antonello Palombi has idiomatic color and enough volume to satiate starved ears, but he could use more study in phrasing. His last act Tomb Scene was unnecessarily strenuous because he used under-supported full voice rather than relying on a piano produced by head voice, evidently as yet undeveloped. Alberto Mastromarino had a good color in his mid range for Amonasro but does not have enough overtones in his voice to carry through an orchestral forte. Both the High Priestess (Erla Kollaku) and Messenger (Alessandro Cosentino) were superb. Giovanni Andreoli's choral forces had the necessary full sound for this opera. The priests in the last act sounded suspiciously like a Russian church male choir, perhaps a souvenir of Verdi's grand trip to St. Petersburg for the premiere of Forza del Destino about a decade before.
Isaac Karabtchevsky offered a sensitively-phrased orchestral prelude and a finale that was especially poetic. In an uncustomary approach, he alternated a stately, almost pre-romantic clarity with traditional dramatic scene finales. The basses were particularly incisive in this well-received edition.