Arena di Verona 2023 Review: Aida

Anna Netrebko Reigns at the Arena di Verona with Exceptional Interpretation

By Francisco Salazar

On June 16, the Arena di Verona inaugurated its 100th anniversary season with a new production of “Aida.”

The evening was one of the most anticipated events of the opera season and drew a crowd of 20,000 spectators. It also brought a number of very important world figures including Sophia Loren, who arrived on the red carpet and was received with a standing ovation. President Sergio Mattarella was also in attendance. But before the evening began, the Arena opened with a tribute to its soldiers with the chorus singing the national anthem dressed in the colors of the Italian flag and planes flying over the arena accompanied by the red, green, and white. It was a spectacle that heightened the excitement of the evening. 

And then, just as the performance was about to start, it started raining. The performance was halted for 20 minutes as the string instruments were brought inside. When the cloud of rain passed, the performance began.

There was occasional lightning and thunder heard at some points throughout the evening, but thankfully once the opera began, everything was smooth sailing.

A New Aida

This season all eyes were on the Arena which caused controversy last season for its old-fashioned practices in a Franco Zeffirelli production of “Aida.” Last year the festival promised something new and different that would leave the traditional staging and enter into a new era.

The result was Stefano Poda’s “Avant-Garde” staging that asked many questions and left the viewer with no answers.

According to the director’s notes, Poda states that the “staging can open up to a universe, filled with a thousand experiences; a journey that is also recognizable, familiar and on a human scale.” That reflective quality is what is displayed in this staging as Poda uses many mirrors and reflective glass.

There is also the symbol of power represented by an enormous wire hand that towers over the stage. Poda noted that this hand “represents human power and the capability it has from killing to creating or striking down or raising up.”

These two elements work throughout the staging and while impressive at many moments, it all felt like a bunch of ideas with no cohesion. It all also felt like I was watching a “Star Wars” version of “Aida” without the drama attached to the franchise.

Many times the stage direction was static with performers at the center singing around massive sets and actors who occasionally moved. And at other times Poda seemed more interested in his ideas creating distractions that took us away from the actual libretto that as he notes is filled with so much depth. Some of the biggest distractions of the evening included the dead bodies coming in during the Amneris and Aida duet and the Radamès-Amneris duet where Amneris was forced to go around a forest of red ropes that Radamès is tied to. There were many moments where stage actors clung to the singers tying them down to one spot and hindering them from interacting with one another; one example of this was the triumphal scene and the duet between Aida and Amonasro.

One of the most distracting moments came during the two ballets.  The first one in Amneris’ scene looked like a bunch of rockets moving around the stage walking in ordered lines. Then the second ballet, during the triumphal scene, had the dancers moving their hands in weird positions, clapping at other moments, and twirling in their metallic dresses that clanged so much that it became difficult to concentrate on Verdi’s music.

Poda’s most effective moments came when he left the performers to themselves and had few distractions. That was most evident during the “Ritorna vincitor” and “O Terra addio,” as the performers were to be expressive with their voices and physicality. These moments, which were enhanced by LED lights created the ethereal atmosphere expected of an operatic performance on this scale.

Another incredible feature of Poda’s production was the lighting. Throughout the evening you could see LED-laser lights forming a pyramid and others that changed colors from red to blue to green, all creating gorgeous effects. There were also impressive lighting effects in the back of the arena as actors moved in with what looked like light rods that had a fire effect during the judgment scene.

The wardrobe was interesting as well. Amneris had a number of costumes including a black gown with an imposing headpiece. She also had a red dress in the second act that gave fierceness to the character. Radamès had two black cloaks with white at the top and another with a shiny metallic piece. His final costume was a gorgeous, white-deconstructed cloak that was reminiscent of Aida’s costumes.

And speaking of Aida, there were three deconstructed dresses. The first was a rainbow-colored dress with white, while the second one had blue and green hues. The third one was a mix of oranges, blues, and reds. Her final costume was a gorgeous white cloak jacket which benefited from the wind blowing to create an image of gliding.

Overall the production is a spectacle that needs to be seen live in order to understand the grandiosity of it. However, it could use more cohesion and less distraction.

The Diva

In the title role, Anna Netrebko returned to her acclaimed Aida. On this opening night, she brought a powerful and sensitive voice and a physicality that is rarely seen in an Aida performance. Rarely does one see a soprano perform “O Patria Mia” twirling around a stage moving through actors with light rods and then singing the difficult “tu sei felice” in the Amneris duet while lying on the floor. She also sang her final “pieta” in that duet as she lay on the floor and slowly decrescendoed her note to nothing.

Then there were the many instances where she faced away from the audience bringing out a full voice that still projected into the space effortlessly. And of course, the staging in this production required Netrebko to move about as she floated on the glass floor and glided with the suavity of a ballet dancer.

That suaveness on stage brought us into the frailty and conflict of her Aida. That was best displayed in Netrebko’s remarkable “Ritorna Vincitor.” She began her aria with an attack on the opening phrase demonstrating her hope for Radamès. However as she realized what that victory meant for her people, Netrebko’s phrases on “Vincitor de’miei fratelli ond’io lo vegga,” displayed the tremor in her Aida as she sang with an accented forte, especially on “Struggete le squadre dei nostri oppressor!” and ended the phrase with a forte on the extended high note. There was a more retrospective sound in “E l’amor mio? Dunque scordar poss’io questo fervido amore” and a delicacy to each of her phrases that emphasized Aida’s despair. “I sacri nomi di padre d’amante” was given a breathy timbre and Netrebko drove the tempo forward until she arrived at the “numi pieta.” In this passage, she sang with care and a piano sound. The voice floated with each passage creating a silky tone. On “Amor fatal tremendo amore” she slowly crescendoed to a forte but never lost the shimmering quality of the line. Once she arrived at the climatic note she slowly descrescendoed it and arrived at the final “numi pietà.” In the final phrases, she kneeled down at the center of the stage and sang the passages with delicacy until they vanished into silence.

If “Ritorna Vinictor” had a frail quality to it, Netrebko’s “O Patria Mia” was one of introspection as she glided through the maze of actors with lights. Throughout the aria, she kept her phrases light and held back the volume. Her opening “O Patria Mia” was filled with a velvety and finessed nature, her low notes resonate and strong. Netrebko connected each line with that same floated quality, many lines in one fiato. That elasticity was most evident as she reached her higher range in the first “O patria mia, mai più ti revedrò!” and slowly descrescendoed the note, bringing it back down to her lower voice. The “O fresche valli, o queto asil beato” maintained the glimmering timbre, and as she arrived at the high C, she maintained the climatic note in a mezzavoce that floated throughout the arena. The final cadenza was held out for a very long moment and the final “ti vedrò” was gorgeously shaped.

Netrebko’s duets displayed her force as an actress. With Olesya Petrova, she first came in with nostalgia-pinged singing before arriving at defiance as she ran over to the mezzo on her lines “Ebben sia pure… Anch’io.” There she brought her hand over Petrova’s Amneris before dropping to the floor and singing “pieta” with remorse. Her “Tu sei felice, tu sei possente” had a yearning quality and on the second repeat, she laid down and sang the line with more accents while retaining the clean, legato line. At the end of the duet, when the melody returns to the “numi pietà,” Netrebko sang the lines with even more intensity than she did during her aria. The penultimate “pietà” was accented, while the final one was more gentle, expressing Aida’s sense of loneliness.

In her great duet with Amonasro, the soprano’s tone opened up to a brighted timbre as she sang “Rivedrò le foreste imbalsamate” and “L’alba invocata de’sereni dì.” That soon turned to a heavier dramatic timbre that darkened during her passages “Orrore! Che mi consigli tu? No! no! giammai!” The “Ah padre! padre!…” was filled with desperation and her repetition of “pietà” continuously built until it exploded into full-blown fortissimo and stretched her voice to its most powerful. Her “Padre, a costoro schiava non soon…” was a resounding lament that emphasized Aida’s suffering. It was among the best moments for Netrebko as she relished and slowly shaped each line. Her lower voice also opened up during this moment. Her “O patria! o patria, quanto mi costi!” was particularly powerful as she held out the line as long as she could.

And once the duet ended Netrebko’s Aida changed to a seductress with her softened “Là… tra foreste vergini,” once again moving across the stage while slowly twirling  and singing. After Yusif Eyvazov’s “Sovra una terra estrania,” which was sung with ardor and passion, Netrebko repeated her phrase with even more drive. She combined her lush voice with Eyvzaov’s more grainy tone beautifully. And while the voices are not necessarily the best match in terms of color, their phrases were in sync with one another.

It was only a preview of what the final duet “O terra addio” would be. Here Eyvazov softened his tone and attempted to float his higher register to match Netrebko’s velvet quality. The result was an ethereal feeling as they never went above a mezzoforte. Netrebko kept her tone light as the melody flowed into her voice while Eyvazov sang with a bright connected line. The climactic “Volano al raggio dell’eterno dì,” which is generally sung forte, was sung with a piano sound that both descrescendoed beautifully and led to the final lines “… si schiude il ciel!” softening each time they were repeated. At the end of the duet, they entered a pyramid that was at the center of the stage slowly kneeling and looking toward the audience.

A Heroic Turn

As noted Yusi Eyvazov sang the role of Radamès. While his chemistry with Netrebko is undeniable, he held his own with an impressive technique. While many will argue about the color of his voice, what Eyvazov brings to the stage is an effortless tenor that can hit gorgeous high notes and can also be expressive even if  he intermittently lacks finesse. His “Celeste Aida” was sung with honest and raw emotion as Netrebko moved around him and caressed him. Eyvazov demonstrated a gorgeous legato line and sturdy high notes that shimmered. His “Ergerti un trono vicino al sol,” where he hits the B flat in the middle of the aria, radiated and he quickly descended to repeat the A melody with great ease.

In the ensemble “Nume custode e vindice,” Eyvazov sang with a heroic timbre that was defiant and demonstrated the spinto qualities of his voice. He powered over the choral moments on his phrases “roteggi tu, difendi” and “D’egitto il sacro suo.” You could also say the same in the triumphal scene as his voice seemed to gain power and heroism.

As noted, in the duet with Netrebko he displayed an impressive legato line that also featured fearless heft. Eyvazov’s “Pur ti riveggo mia dolce Aida” was both flexible and potent, expressing his conflicted love. Then in the “Sì, fuggiam da queste mura” you could hear his forte sound emphasize his desperation as he climbed to the higher notes in “Su noi gli astri brilleranno.” That desperation was only heightened in the ensuing trio as Eyvazov sang “Io son disonorato!” with staccato phrases, each time crescendoing to a fortissimo. The “Sacerdote, io resto a te” that ends the act was sung with herculean and defiant timbre.

That resistant spirit continued during “Di mie discolpe i giudici” as he opened the duet with a dark hue in his voice and rose to a bright higher register. Contrasting with Olesya Petrova’s more desperate tone, he delivered a rich and sturdy sound that continuously held out high notes with great force. Eyvazov’s grainy tone was also well complemented by Petrova’s harsher accents. As Petrova’s voice grew in size, so did Eyvazovs. They were able to reach an intense confrontation that, during phrases on “gaudi and “immensi,” Eyvazov emoted with harshness.

Powerhouse Mezzo

In the role of Amneris ,Olesya Petrova had one of the biggest challenges of the evening as she barely had physical interaction with her fellow cast mates. She was always forced into running either through a maze of ropes or corpses or being held to the ground by actors on stage. And when she didn’t have these obstacles, her blocking seemed to always be opposite to her colleagues. This obviously created a challenge in relating to the character who seemed to be distant from Radamès and Aida. Nevertheless, Petrova gave it her all with her plush mezzo. The opening trio showcased her immense voice as she sang with confidence and opulence. There was also a slyness to her “Ah! Trema, rea schiave, trema!” as she accented the consonants.

In her duet with Netrebko, she proved a good scene partner even if at times she lacked the nuance or flexibility on stage to really give her Amneris gravitas. Still, vocally she began with a light mezzo forte in the opening, “Fu la sorte dell’armi a’tuoi funesta,” and “Io son l’amica tua.” That deceiving kindness in her voice quickly turned to forceful entrances that sometimes made her voice raspy, especially in “A tutti barbara” and “Cadde trafitto a more…” as she descended into the lower half of her voice. As the duet evolved into a confrontation, the beauty of her voice turned grainier, and she dug more into her lower notes. The “Trema, vil schiava! Spezza il tuo core” was blistering with frightening accents, and Petrova’s timbre, while not always beautiful, was filled with intensity. Her “D’odio e vendetta le furie ho in cor” showcased a resonant chest voice and her final “Se lottar tu puoi con me” was commanding. Perhaps Petrova and Netrebko’s voices were not complimentary to one another, but still, Petrova’s more aggressive sound, compared to Netrebko’s silk-like qualities, gave the duet a unique intensity.

In her Act four duet with Radamès, “Gia i sacertoti adunansi,” the assertive qualities of her voice turned to desperation. One could fragility in the characterization for the first time. She sang with more connected phrases that expressed her yearning for Radamè. She delivered virtuosic top and low notes in the second part of the duet. In “Dalla sorte che t’aspetta?” she dug into her lower parts, returning to the accented phrases and in “De’ miei pianti la vendetta,” she held out the high note for as long as she could, allowing it to express the undying pain of Amneris. The second high note on “Or dal ciel si compirà” was held even longer, and while it threatened to become strident, was equally as powerful in its effect.

Unfortunately her aria, “Ohimè!… morir mi sento! Oh! chi lo salva?” didn’t have the same cathartic power or introspection. While Petrova did showcase her more lyric lines, it was sung too quickly and without much nuance. She was much more effective in the trial scene with each “Ah, pietà! Egli è innocente! Numi, pietà!” obtaining more strength and displaying the mezzo’s vulnerability. “Sacerdoti: compiste un delitto!” was sung with desperation and her “Voi la terra ed i Numi oltraggiate” brought out all of the agony of Petrova’s Amneris.

She was also impressive in the choral moments, “Su! del Nilo al sacro lido,” “Ma tu, Re” and “Gloria all’egitto, ad Iside” in which her voice towered over the ensemble with facility and flexibility. Perhaps in the “Gloria all’egitto” some of the top notes went a little strident and out of tune.

Sacerdoti & Kings

In the role of Amonasro, Roman Burdenko was in fine form if not exceptional. Dressed in a black army uniform that was reminiscent of Darth Vader, the baritone came out with a weary voice that sounded a bit rocky at the beginning of his opening lines, “Suo padre. Anch’io pugnai…” His “Quest’assisa ch’io vesto vi dica” lacked the power and command of this character, but he sang the music with good legato phrases and shaped the music with nice mezzoforte.

The duet with Aida, which is the biggest scene for the character, didn’t have much drive. The voice, while smooth in some moments, seemed unsteady as he began “Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate.” As the duet developed, Burdenko’s voice, while audible, was swallowed by the orchestra and sometimes failed to cut through Netrebko’s voice, especially during “Su, dunque! sorgete.” He did sing with impressive staccato phrases and his diction was impeccable. There were also some piano moments like “Radamès so che qui attendi… Ei t’ama…” that showcased the conniving Amonasro and which played well into the dramatic arc of the scene. The final “Pensa che un popolo, vinto, straziato” did show Burdenko at his finest as he used his suave baritone to sing caressing phrases that finally saw a touch of sympathy toward Netrebko’s Aida. Perhaps Burdenko would have been helped had he not been trapped in the middle of actors clinging onto him. The moments he and Netrebko had together without any intervention from stage actors were the finest and most dramatic for him and really brought out the character’s feelings.

Michele Pertusi sang Ramfis with an adequate bass though it lacked distinction. Dressed in a black cloak that was reminiscent of the emperor in “Star Wars,” he gave the character a stern feel that matched his vocal qualities and his dark bass timbre.

Simon Lim portrayed il Re with bright vocal heft in his two scenes; his bass boomed well into the coliseum. Finally, Francesca Maionchi sang the Sacerdotessa with a shimmering soprano, giving her “Possente, possente Fthà, del mondo” flexibility and a lightness that worked well with the harp in the orchestra.

In the pit, Marco Armiliato conducted with always reliable Italianate style that brought the colors of Verdi’s masterful score. He always made sure never to overpower the singers and always accompanied them, almost never missing a beat. Even when he went ahead of Eyvazov during the opening of “Sì, fuggiam da queste mura,” Armiliato immediately corrected in order to give the tenor time for his phrase.

Some of the most impressive moments of the evening came during the prelude which opened with a delicate line and the final duet, which brought out the tenderness of the vocal lines via the violins. The opening of the Nile scene was also gorgeously conducted as one could almost feel the effect of the river throughout the violins’ rhythms. And of course, he led the chorus to great effect during the triumphal scene, which sounded jubilant in the massive space. Even better than the famed choral scene was the sublime singing of the chorus in the final duet as they accompanied  Netrebko and Eyvazov. Surrounding the soloists from the top of the Coliseum, their voices shimmered during the “… immenso Fthà!” and “Noi t’invochiam…”

Overall this was an unforgettable and celebratory evening that showcased Netrebko in top form and proved why she remains one of opera’s greatest singers.


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