“Aida” is one of the most complex operas in the repertory as it has demanding music that requires singers with immense voices that can also create riveting portrayals of deeply emotional and complex beings.
However, it seems like most opera companies nowadays use this opera as a fan favorite and present it in routine productions that look like they are quickly put together without absolutely any intent for drama. That was exactly what happened at the Prague National Opera’s performance of “Aida” on July 4, 2017.
Unfortunately, the evening was a little more than a rehashed “Aida” filled with company singers who were evidently past their prime and who seemed lost on stage.
Romanian soprano Anda-Louise Bogza portrayed Aida with the typical gestures, running up and down the stage without any discernible intent. There was barely any interaction with her stage partners, particularly in her final duet with Radamès. “O Terra addio” should be a tender farewell to life and it should show the love that these two characters have for each other. Bogza was more worried about singing loudly and getting to the high notes, which she, unfortunately, struggled with all night. Her “Ritorna Vincitor” sounded like one skidded note after another and her upper range sounded strained. The “O Patria Mia” was even more regrettable as she constantly ran out of breath and on her climactic high C, she fell noticeably flat. It was evident why this happened in the finale to the concertato. Bogza could never connect the notes because she constantly had to take air to project and the finale of this glorious moment sounded like a soprano taking her last breaths and being noticeably underpowered. Bogza also constantly entered late making for many awkward musical moments. Bogza has a beautiful tone and one that can easily express. However, with the concentration on loud singing, any subtleties she attempted were easily lost.
As Amneris, veteran soprano Eva Urbanova attempted to create some drama on stage. While all her cast mates were content with just “parking and barking,” Urbanova commanded the stage with her imposing presence. From her entrance one saw that this was a woman of power and one who could manage to get whatever her heart desired. She walked all over her Aida in the first trio and in the “Gloria all’ Egitta” she looked regal. In her judgment scene, she lay down on the floor praying for mercy for Radamès. It was a striking moment as she sang looking down to the floor. And during her final solo of that act, she ran toward Ramfis attempting to save Radamès. It was in these moments where this “Aida” seemed alive. However, it wasn’t all lovely. Urbanova used to possess a dramatic soprano that could easily fill the auditorium with drama. However, that voice is basically gone. What is left is a voice filled with wobbles and strained notes. When she attempted to sing mezza voce at the beginning of Act two, the voice sounded old and skidded all over in terms of timbre and intonation. In the concertato, she covered the entire chorus with her still huge sound, but her high register could never reach the intended notes written by Verdi. And in her duet with Radamès, her lower register obtained a hollow tone. Urbanova held out high Bs that never reached proper intonation and instead of sounding dramatic, the sounds only came off as screams. During her aria, she tried a piano sound and instead of connected phrasing, it was all choppy. The “Pace ti Imploro” at the end was also sung with too much volume and instead of a peaceful ending, the opera ended with loud sounds that hindered the tender moment.
As Radamès, Michal Lehotsky displayed a heroic timbre and showcased an intensity in the text, particularly in the third act. In the trio one really understood his torment for betraying his country. However, this moment was the only thing that was coherent in his singing. From his “Celeste Aida” to his duet with Aida, he lacked any subtle phrasing as it was all about singing loudly. Every time he reached a high note he would cut it off abruptly, giving it a coarse sound. Dramatically, he stood around each scene and looked very lost on stage. He never interacted with his castmates.
Richard Haan’s Amonsaro had some dramatic moments but his wobble was too distracting for anything to come through. Peter Mikulas sounded formidable but he lacked any dramatic stage presence and looked uncomfortable in his outfits.
The Ballet and Production
The ballet by Otto Sanda was one of those “so bad, it’s good” types. In the chamber scene with Amneris, the two female dancers took turns twirling and jumping around. But the farcical nature was upped during the triumphal march. The female dancers and male dancers all looked extremely lost on stage jumping and twirling around with flowers and swords. When they were done twirling they fell to the floor. What was more disappointing was the set up of a female dancer in the middle. She stood upstage waiting to enter the dance. And when she did it all amounted to her lifting her legs, making stereotypical Egyptian poses, twirling and belly-dancing – all that anticipation simply led to one of the most anticlimactic finales. Instead of a virtuosic display of dance, all the audience got from the dancer was to stand around and get lifted by the rest of male dancers. Still, this ballet was the most visually stimulating part of this evening, even if it was for comic reasons.
The production of the opera was attractive as it evokes the Egyptian terrain with gorgeous tableaus depicting the pyramids and the Nile scene. The problem is it has too many distractions. While Aida sings “Ritorna Vincitor” the chorus walks around with a few dancers taking away from the intimacy of moment. Later on when Aida and Amneris are dueling it out in the confrontation duet, two dancers walk in to dress Amneris, also distracting from the drama taking place. The worst moment however at the end during “O Terra Addio.” Not once did the tenor or soprano look at each other and when they were getting to the middle section the soprano was forced to throw petals on the stage for no purpose whatsoever. It looked tacky and incredibly amateur making the tender moment laughable.
In the pit, Enrico Dovico conducted briskly making Verdi’s music flow and move. But there was one moment that killed any of his nuances and that was at the end of the judgment scene when the timpani resounded throughout the theater making for an extremely awkward moment where the audience had no idea what to do. But there was a big highlight and that was the violin solo at the end of “O Terra Addio.” While the singers lacked any mezza voce, the violinist relished in every moment Verdi gives the instrument making for the most glorious “vocal” moment of the evening.
Overall this evening is an example of what repertory houses cannot have. “Aida” is an opera with such rich melodies and beautiful characters and this work deserves so much better.