The Met’s Aida is a monumental affair, and those who have seen it with monumental voices know how effective it can be. It sounds really empty when the huge sceneries have to work the magic alone while the orchestra is muted to accomodate small-scaled voices. This saturday a debut in such a fearsome role was scheduled with a singer whose accomplishment were at least to me mysterious. I cannot say how much of a good surprise Micaela Carosi is – but I am convinced that the surprise is somehow good. She has a voice in the good old Italian style – there is a faint touch of Gabriella Tucci in her lirico spinto. However, maybe because of her debut, the instrument was sometimes awkwardly handled. Act I was particularly messy – the low passaggio was clumsy, top notes fluttery and the pitch was suspect. From act II on, she found a better shape, treated her gear change more gently, focused her top notes and would now and then pull out some stunning things. Fortunately, most of them in act III. It is a pity she deemed unimportant to see to her mezza voce in the closing scene – she had sung some beautiful floating tones before that.
Olga Borodina was clearly not in a good day as Amneris. Until mezzo forte she seemed pretty much herself. Forte passages in the high register found her bleached-toned and laborious. Granted, her large velvety mezzo is not exactly the one for Amneris, but in her good days she certainly is able to prove she is more than Ersatz in this opera.
Replacing an ailing Marco Berti, Stephen O’Mara had a rather testing debut as Radames. Although his voice generally stands the heavy demands made on it by Verdi, his tenor seemed to have been beefed-up for German operatic purposes. As it is, the sound is coarsely dark and secure but top notes tend to be tense and there is very little sensuousness in it. Juan Pons may have the world’s record in the role of Amonasro. At this stage in his career, he has to disguise the strain with studied overemphasis, in which he succeeds to a certain extent. Both Vitalji Kowaljow as Ramfis and Reinhard Hagen as the King have spacious beautiful voices.
Kazushi Ono presided over an elegant performance in which he clearly was trying to make his singers’ lives easier. As a result, there was a certain economy with fortissimos and unfortunately also less impact. It must be pointed out that the ensembles were unusually clean and transparent, what is always praiseworthy considered the scale of the event.
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It seems the first time Arturo Toscanini ever conducted an orchestra before an audience happened to be in Rio de Janeiro in 1886. The opera then was Aida – and Aida (in concert version) was chosen by Lorin Maazel and the Symphonica Toscanini to pay him a tribute. As I have written in my comments on the Symphinica Toscanini’s Avery Fisher Hall concert with René Pape, this is an orchestra made of young musicians of which Maazel himself is the musical director. The 2007 tournée is meant as a tribute to Toscanini’s death 50th anniversary.
It is predictable that the main feature of the concert was Maazel himself. The prestigious conductor found the right balance between a symphonic reading and attention to soloists. His orchestra has an extremely polished sound and Maazel tried to cleanse the score from all vulgarity. Large ensembles looked amazingly Mahlerian in their polish and orderliness, without any loss in excitement. On the contrary: these young musicians were particularly enthusiastic and inside the dramatic action as rarely one sees in a concert version of opera. One could feel their interaction with soloists, masterly tutored by the conductor, especially in the more “chamber-like” proportions of act III. A beautiful rendition of Verdi’s masterpiece.
Maria Guleghina’s exuberant voice and personality do not fit entirely the role of Aida. Her soprano is powerful and ductile as demanded, but the low register eludes her entirely and having to produce some volume down there eventually tired the singer and her tendency to misfiring her top notes increased during the night. When sung forte, they could be below pitch. When sung piano, they could be airy and fragile. In any case, Guleghina is an intelligent, engaged artist who never cheats; her artistic sincerity and generosity steered her to the end of the opera with the audience on her side. Young mezzo soprano Anna Smirnova has all the elements of a Borodina-like dramatic mezzo in the making, but it seems she is tackling heavy roles too soon. She is a capable singer who has many tricks on her sleeves, but the fact that her powerful top notes and contralto-like low notes cannot hide a barely hearable middle register is an evidence that she should give her voice some time to develop. One can understand the seduction of singing roles such as Amneris to such a convincing and intense singer, but it would be a pity to see a talent such as hers burn out because of impatience. Walter Fraccaro is a very solid Radamés. His voice is the lirico spinto one would expect to hear in this opera and one will forgive his absence of variety and nuance in a role usually treated to overparted singers. Juan Pons’s sizeable baritone has seen better days and the most dramatic moments show him overemphatic and a bit behind the beat, but the tone is always pleasant to the ears and he has the charisma to make it work. A disappointing King Marke in Rome last year, Rafael Siwek works far better as Ramfis – his dark large bass produce the necessary authority in a role in which he does not have to be so verbally specific as in Tristan und Isolde.
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