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Aida is a tricky opera to stage effectively. It doesn't hold up well to modernisation or revisionism, demanding a very specific mood and setting that one messes with at one's peril. I've seen it done before in a Risorgimento updating to Verdi's time and in Robert Wilson's particular minimalist style, both of which were interesting, but neither were entirely successful. On the other hand, a traditional approach to Aida requires both a big stage to match the grandeur of Verdi's compositions of ceremonial marches through ancient monuments, and not everyone has the budget to go for the Full Zeffirelli. Even then however, the lack of dramatic incident and the demands placed on the singers mean that even a traditional setting can be rather static. Directed by Turkish-Italian filmmaker Ferzan Ozpetek, the Florence production of Aida, recorded here in 2011, tends towards the traditional and looks marvellous, but in how it approaches those other considerable challenges that a staging of the opera presents, it unfortunately falls well short of the mark.
That's disappointing from a musical point of view, particularly as we have as distinguished a musical director as Zubin Metha conducting the orchestra, for if there's at least one thing you would hope to count on from any production of Aida, it's that it presents a vigorous account of Verdi's dynamic score. Aida is one of the most melodic and memorable of late Verdi operas, with hints of grand opera influence, but it's also one that is attuned to the emotional content of the drama with an exotic flavour for its Egyptian setting. The performance initially feels somewhat perfunctory, for the first Act at least, a run-through with no real commitment on the part of the musicians or the conductor. It improves in subsequent acts, warming to the characters and their situation, but there's never a sense that Metha is able to get the orchestra to do full justice to the dynamic theatricality of Verdi's majestic score.
If that's the case - and it's only my opinion - it's at least in step with the lack of dynamism elsewhere in the production. The stage sets, designed by Dante Ferretti, look marvellous - grand statues and monuments bathed in golden light, with colourful sunsets and deep blue moonlit night scenes - and the costumes are traditional and exotic. Stage director Ferzan Ozpetek however is unable to find anything for the singers do on stage but stand and project out to an audience, while priests and choruses stand grouped or march in solemn procession. There's no question of there being any acting involved. Only once is there a suggestion of anything with imagination and that occurs briefly when the traditional pomp and patriotic fervour of the Triumphal March is initially undercut by the appearance on the stage of a young bloodstained child, looking bewildered by the celebration of the slaughter that has occurred. It's a throwaway touch however, soon forgotten under the more traditional, but not particularly imaginatively choreographed battle ballet that follows.
Again, a lack of drama or ideas on the stage wouldn't be much of a problem - it's one of the issues with Aida - if only the singers were capable of making up for the slack elsewhere. Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of strong singing to sufficiently redeem this production. Marco Bertii has a fine tone of voice as Radamès, but his technique is all off and his 'Celeste Aida' is a struggle. He comes through however in Act IV where it counts. Luciana D'Intino is a weak Amneris, her singing shrill and unpleasant, without sufficient force or personality to carry the role - an unfortunate drawback, since it's this character who has perhaps the most important central role in the opera. Hui Hei's Aida is about the best there is here, her Act III duets coming over well, particularly her duet with a fine Ambrogio Maestri as Amanasro. Without a strong enough Amneris however to hammer home Act IV after the rallying that comes through from the cast and orchestra in Act III, it's all to little avail.
There are no extra features on the Blu-ray, so the single-layer BD25 is generally fine for the two-and-a-half hour opera. The image quality is excellent throughout, 1080i full-HD, with only a little sign of compression artefacts during a couple of faster pans of the camera. The audio tracks are the customary PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and there's a decent tone and clarity to both. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The disc is All Region.