This season the Teatro Liceu in Barcelona has been celebrating the 20th anniversary of its reopening after the reconstruction of that beautiful opera house at the Ramblas after burning down in 1994. For that occasion the Liceu revived its legendary Aïda production that premiered there in 1945 and was part of the repertory for 75 years. It is certainly one of the oldest opera productions of the world.
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Aïda by Giuseppe Verdi. Opera in four acts. 1871. Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. First performance at the Cairo Opera House on 24th December 1871.
Liceu Opera Barcelona. 19 January, 2020.
The King: Mariano Buccino (bas)
Amneris: Clémentine Margaine (mezzo-sopraan)
Aida: Angela Meade (dramatisch sopraan)
Radamès: Yonghoon Lee (heldentenor)
Ramfis: Kwangchul Youn (bas)
Amonasro: Franco Vassallo (heldenbariton)
A messenger: Josep Fadó
High Priestess: Berna Perles
Conductor: Gustavo Gimeno
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Liceu Opera Barcelona
Stage director: Thomas Guthrie
The production has been designed by the famous Catalan set designer Josep Mestres Cabanes (1898-1990) during the late 1930s. Cabanes` sets have been restored by Jordi Castelles for the current revival and still look splendid. They mostly consist of painted elements that look so plastic and real, that the audience is always amazed when the curtain opens and shows a new scene. The imposing temple scene at the shore of the Nile in act three, but also the red glooming set of the judgment scene in act four were real optical highlights of the art of set designing in the tradition of the 19th century, as we do not see it anymore a lot in our days. Unfortunately, for the current Aïda revival the Teatro Liceu decided to combine these legendary sets and their grandezza with a new direction by the young British director Thomas Guthrie. Instead of respecting the powerful frame of Cabanes` timeless sets and letting Giuseppe Verdi`s music breathe and flow, Guthrie created an aggressive, partly senseless and distracting direction, that totally destroyed the magic of the music and sets. Thus, we can see a bloody human sacrifice in the temple scene of act I, loudly acting children in some of the chorus scenes and two obese eunuchs in black tunicas who accompanied Amneris for most of the evening. Many details of the Personenregie did not make any sense at all.
Modern dancing scenes
Why does Amneris confront Aïda with her love to Radames in front of her maids and not alone, as claimed in the libretto? Why is Aïda joining her mistress at her nightly prayers into the temple at the shore of the Nile and leaves that place again to meet Radames outside? Another sad highlight was the choreography by Angelo Smimmo that consisted of modern dancing scenes that were a foreign body in the performance. The ballet after the famous triumph march consisted of a badly danced fight of shouting (!) gladiators making Verdi`s exotic music look like being performed at the wrong place. When, finally, all gladiators were dead they rolled to the sinking in the middle of the stage floor, in order to get that floor free again…. Senseless and disturbing also the beginning of the opera: during the Preludio we can see Aïda as little girl dreaming and painting, while the sets only arrived from upstairs just at the beginning of the first scene. At the end of the final duet of the opera when Aïda and Radames await death in their prison, the whole setting is elevated again, while we can see the little girl painting again, killing the narcotic atmosphere Verdi had in mind for “O terra addio”.
Low quality of singing
The costumes of this production have been renewed in 2011 by the famous costume designer Franca Squarciapino and looked (with the exception of Viking like heads for the Ethiopian prisoners) beautifull and authentic, even if they did not fit stylistically to the historic sets. Unfortunately, not only the staging left many wishes open, but also the singing. The program book shows pictures of some of the singers that have appeared in this production: Anita Cerquetti, Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballe, Carlo Bergonzi, Mario del Monaco, Placido Domingo and Fiorenza Cosotto just to name a few. It was clear that today we cannot reach that level of singing, but I was really surprised that the quality of singing was that low in the visited performance: Angela Meade is a vocally powerful Aïda, whose soprano is mostly working well in the different registers, though there is a certain shrill sound in some heights. It was shocking, though, to hear when a whole series of notes broke away during her aria “O patria mia” during the third act. Clementine Margaine does not have (yet) the format to convince as the Egypt princess Amneris: Her mezzo sounds too one-dimensional, is completely lacking colours and dramatic force. Additional there are massive problems in the lower notes and therefore I have rarely heard such a musically indifferent and poor judgment scene.
Abrupt tempo changes
Yonghoon Lee has a strong and metallic tenor. Unfortunately, in this performance he did not sound much differentiated. His voice was not able to form any silent or sweater tones for the whole evening. Instead, Lee was mostly singing fortissimo, some passages sounded as if they were shouted, like the ear hurting “Sacerdote Io resto a te” a moment that should normally cause the audience shivering. Much better did Franco Vassallo whose technically excellent baritone gave that rather short role some revaluation. Kwangchul Youn as Ramfis benefited from his Wagner experiences in Bayreuth and convinced as sinister and threatening high priest, while the King of Mariano Buccino impressed with a full sounding and warm flowing bass. The Orquestra Simfonica del Gran Teatro del Liceu under the baton of Gustavo Gimeno played quite unbalanced. The conductor`s abrupt tempo changes did not make it easy for the singers to follow, in his interpretation a dramatic line was missing as well as depth and colours – in one of the richest scores composed by Verdi. The same applied also for the chorus prepared by Conxita Garcia – there were quite unbalanced moments especially during the triumph scene. After the arias there was not much applauding and at the end of this four hours evening with three intermissions the applause stayed friendly but rather tired.