Wednesday, December 12, 2012

AIDA Live in HD this Saturday, Dec 15

The granddaddy of all grand operas, Verdi's Aida is the next installment in the acclaimed Met "Live in HD" series. Come to Virginia Western Community College early for an "opera insights" talk. I'll introduce this great opera at 12:30, prior to the 12:55 curtain.

The Met website is a great resource for photo and video galleries of its productions, and synopses, articles and interviews. Here's the link for this week's HD broadcast:

Aida has been an audience favorite since its premiere in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871. It has always been a Met staple, and some of the most distinguished artists of the past century have championed it: conductors like Toscanini, Karajan, Solti and Levine, and tenors such as Caruso, Pavarotti and Domingo. Great sopranos from Emmy Destinn to Maria Callas and Leontyne Price have made Verdi's most dramatic heroine among their signature roles.

For all its grandeur - the "triumphal scene" of Act II, replete with march, parading elephants and a chorus of over 200 singers and dancers is the most famous concerted scene in opera - Aida is an intimate relationship drama. And like many such operas, Aida involves a dramatically charged love-triangle.

The heroic tenor Radames (Roberto Alagna) has been promised to the Pharoah's daughter, Amneris (Dolora Zajick in the photo above, sung by Olga Borodina in this run). Radames is in love with "Celeste Aida" (Heavenly Aida), the Ethiopian slave of Amneris. Aida's father is the king of Ethiopia, Amonasro, the arch enemy of Radames, Amneris and Egypt. Thus the baritone's presence gives Verdi yet another triangle - that between Father and Daughter and Daughter and Tenor!

The synopsis (from the MET site) is copied below. I will conclude with a few observations about Verdi's central musical dramatic principle, the parola scenica, the "scenic word." Verdi harangued his librettists across his long career about finding a concentrated, condensed, dramatically potent image for each scene that would enable him to unlock the musical drama opera requires. In Verdi's operas, these "scenic words" are frequently the names of arias or a key word or phrase that encapsulates a scene.

The tenor's first aria, "Celeste Aida" is the first example (and it comes at the very top of the opera). The top of Act III features Aida's most famous aria, "O patria mia" (Oh, my country). It captures Aida's torturous conflict between her love for her Father and homeland and her love for Radames.

Aida's first aria is one of the most brilliant uses of the parola scenica in all of opera. As Radames is named captain of the Egyptian army in the impending battle with Ethiopia, Amneris enjoins him to "return victorious." The entire ensemble of this first grand scene repeats, "Ritorna vincitor." After the crowd disperses, Aida sings her impassioned aria, "Ritorna vincitor," spelling out the conflicting loyalties that will drive the drama. That threefold repetition, at one master-stroke, distills the sprawling grand drama into two words.

Books have been written about this most beloved of grand spectacles doubling as an intimate and tragic love story. From the highly concentrated prelude and the great arias that introduce the major players, through the triumphal march and "exotic" dances and scenes - from the double triangles of conflict and drama to the final and fatal conclusion - Aida is opera at its best.

Aida: Synopsis
Egypt, during the reign of the pharaohs. At the royal palace in Memphis, the high priest Ramfis tells the warrior Radamès that Ethiopia is preparing another attack against Egypt. Radamès hopes to command his army. He is in love with Aida, the Ethiopian slave of Princess Amneris, the king’s daughter. Radamès dreams that victory in the war would enable him to free her and marry her (“Celeste Aida”). But Amneris loves Radamès, and when the three meet, she jealously senses his feelings for Aida. A messenger tells the king of Egypt and the assembled priests and soldiers that the Ethiopians are advancing. The king names Radamès to lead the army, and all join in a patriotic anthem. Left alone, Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and loyalty to her native country, where her father, Amonasro, is king (“Ritorna vincitor”). She prays to the gods for mercy.

In the temple of Vulcan, the priests consecrate Radamès. Ramfis orders him to protect the homeland.

Act II
Ethiopia has been defeated, and Amneris waits for the triumphant return of Radamès. When Aida approaches, the princess sends away her other attendants so that she can learn her slave’s private feelings (Duet: “Fu la sorte dell’armi”). She first pretends that Radamès has fallen in battle, then says he is still alive. Aida’s reactions leave no doubt that she loves Radamès. Amneris, determined to be victorious over her rival, leaves for the triumphal procession.

At the city gates the king and Amneris observe the celebrations and crown Radamès with a victor’s wreath (Triumphal scene: “Gloria all’Egitto”). Captured Ethiopians are led in. Among them is Amonasro, Aida’s father, who signals his daughter not to reveal his identity as king. Radamès is impressed by Amonasro’s eloquent plea for mercy and asks for the death sentence on the prisoners to be overruled and for them to be freed. The king grants his request but keeps Amonasro in custody. The king declares that as a victor’s reward, Radamès will have Amneris’s hand in marriage.

On the eve of Amneris’s wedding, Ramfis and Amneris enter a temple on the banks of the Nile to pray. Aida, who is waiting to meet Radamès in secret, is lost in thoughts of her homeland (“O patria mia”). Suddenly Amonasro appears. Invoking Aida’s sense of duty, he makes her promise to find out from Radamès which route the Egyptian army will take to invade Ethiopia (Duet: “Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate”). Amonasro hides as Radamès enters and assures Aida of his love (Duet: “Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida”). They dream about their future life together, and Radamès agrees to run away with her. Aida asks him about his army’s route, and just as he reveals the secret, Amonasro emerges from his hiding place. When he realizes that Amonasro is the Ethiopian king, Radamès is desperate about what he has done. While Aida and Amonasro try to calm him, Ramfis and Amneris step out of the temple. Father and daughter are able to escape, but Radamès surrenders to the priests.

Act IV
Radamès awaits trial as a traitor. He believes Aida to be dead but then learns from Amneris that she has survived. Amneris offers to save him if he renounces her rival but Radamès refuses. Brought before the priests, he remains silent to their accusations and is condemned to be buried alive. Amneris begs for mercy, but the judges will not change their verdict. She curses the priests.

Aida has hidden in the vault to share Radamès’s fate. They express their love for the last time (Duet: “O terra, addio’) while Amneris, in the temple above, prays for Radamès’s soul.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Italian cuisine for the Holidays at the MET, "Live in HD"

This saturday the Met "Live in HD" series presents its acclaimed new production of Verdi's romantic masterpiece, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball).

It's a favorite of Verdi lovers for good reasons - the drama is discernible in the music from the overture to the conclusion, and its principal characters are fully drawn, true-to-life human beings who sing their varying emotional states in music as rich as any Verdi composed.

The opera was originally set around the historical assassination of King Gustavus of Sweden. Since regicide was a subject the Italian censors expressly forbade in their theaters and opera houses, Verdi and his librettist changed the setting to Colonial Boston. The King became the Governor, and the scenario won the censors' approval. We have considered producing this pivotal Verdi opera here in Roanoke, and placing the action in Colonial Williamsburg. I've copied the synopsis below. The Met has pages of its website devoted to the new production - set in a stylized early 20th century Europe (with beautifully elegant costumes and striking set pieces).

The set features a reproduction of a fresco of the mythical figure of Icarus. Icarus was the boy who failed to heed his father's advice to not fly too close to the sun, and fell to his death as a result of his ambitious over-reaching. Tangent for mythology 101: their man-made wings were attached by wax - they were escaping from the island where Hephaistos, Icarus' father, had built the famous labyrinth in which the half-man, half-bull minotaur preyed on human sacrifices... but that's another opera!

The sprawling image of the tumbling youth is a potent one for the dangers of the "tragic flaw" of ambition which overreaches through excess pride or vanity. In this opera, it's a symbol for the corrupting influence of power. It would seem the (literal) affairs of the heads of state and their general are always grist for the dramatic mills of political life. The King is in love with his right-hand-man's wife, Amelia. The count is unaware of this for the first half of the opera. Though the tenor's and soprano's mutual attraction is never consummated - their magnificent love duet in act 2 is interrupted by the appearance of the baritone Count, who does not immediately recognize his wife. They sing one of Verdi's great trios - an ensemble he would infuse with concentrated musical drama from Rigoletto and Trovatore to Don Carlo and Otello.

The cast features three of the greatest Verdi singers of our day. The American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is Amelia, Marcello Alvarez is the King, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky is the Count.

Take a break from the Holiday madness for an afternoon of exceptional Italian musical cuisine with Verdi! I'll be introducing the opera at Virginia Western Community College's Whitman Auditorium at 12:30, before the 12:55 curtain.

Here's that synopsis from the Met site:

Act I
At the royal palace in Stockholm, courtiers await an audience with King Gustavo III, including a group of conspirators led by Counts Horn and Ribbing. The king enters. He notices the name of Amelia, wife of his secretary and friend, Count Anckarström, on the guest list for a masked ball, and thinks about his secret love for her. Left alone with Gustavo, Anckarström warns the king of a conspiracy against him, but Gustavo ignores the threat. The young page Oscar tells the king about the fortuneteller Madame Ulrica Arvidsson, who has been accused of witchcraft and is to be banished. Deciding to see for himself, the king arranges for his court to pay her an incognito visit.

In a building by the port, Madame Arvidsson invokes prophetic spirits and tells the sailor Cristiano that he will soon become wealthy and receive a promotion. The king, who has arrived in disguise, slips money and papers into Cristiano’s pockets. When the sailor discovers his good fortune, everybody praises Madame Arvidsson’s abilities. Gustavo hides as she sends her visitors away to admit Amelia, who is tormented by her love for the king and asks for help. Madame Arvidsson tells her that she must gather a magic herb after dark. When Amelia leaves, Gustavo decides to follow her that night. Oscar and members of the court enter, and the king asks Madame Arvidsson to read his palm. She tells him that he will die by the hand of a friend. Gustavo laughs at the prophecy and demands to know the name of the assassin. Madame Arvidsson replies that it will be the first person that shakes his hand. When Anckarström rushes in Gustavo clasps his hand saying that the oracle has been disproved since Anckarström is his most loyal friend. Recognizing their king, the crowd cheers him as the conspirators grumble their discontent.

Act II
That night, Amelia, who has followed Madame Arvidsson’s advice to find the herb, expresses her hope that she will be freed of her love for the king. When Gustavo appears, she asks him to leave, but ultimately they admit their love for each other. Amelia hides her face when Anckarström suddenly appears, warning the king that assassins are nearby. Gustavo makes Anckarström promise to escort the woman back to the city without lifting her veil, then escapes. Finding Anckarström instead of their intended victim, the conspirators make ironic remarks about his veiled companion. When Amelia realizes that her husband will fight rather than break his promise to Gustavo, she drops her veil to save him. The conspirators are amused and make fun of Anckarström for his embarrassing situation. Anckarström, shocked by the king’s betrayal and his wife’s seeming infidelity, asks Horn and Ribbing to come to his house the next morning.

In his apartment, Anckarström threatens to kill Amelia. She asks to see their young son before she dies. After she has left, Anckarström declares that is it the king he should seek vengeance on, not Amelia. Horn and Ribbing arrive, and Anckarström tells them that he will join the conspirators. The men decide to draw lots to determine who will kill the king, and Anckarström forces his wife to choose from the slips of paper. When his own name comes up he is overjoyed. Oscar enters, bringing an invitation to the masked ball. As the assassins welcome this chance to execute their plan, Amelia decides to warn the king.

Gustavo, alone in his study, resolves to renounce his love and to send Amelia and Anckarström to Finland. Oscar brings an anonymous letter warning him of the murder plot, but the king refuses to be intimidated and leaves for the masquerade. In the ballroom, Anckarström tries to learn from Oscar what costume the king is wearing. The page answers evasively but finally reveals Gustavo’s disguise. Amelia and the king meet, and she repeats her warning. Refusing to leave, he declares his love one more time and tells her that he is sending her away with her husband. As the lovers say goodbye, Anckarström shoots the king. The dying Gustavo forgives his murderer and admits that he loved Amelia but assures Anckarström that his wife is innocent. The crowd praises the king’s goodness and generosity.