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Monday, October 03, 2005

Random Thoughts on “Aida”

The first opera I ever saw was “Aida.” It was 1969 and I was a high school senior, plus an active member of the school choir—an organization of 110 singers from one of suburban Cleveland’s BIG high schools. My graduating class was something like 1100 kids. Anyway, the operatic venue was Cleveland’s Public Auditorium, a barn-like building more suited to the Auto Show than to music. My best friend at the time (Mark Hein, a classmate and a tenor—he sang “Vesta la Giuba” at our choir’s spring concert, and did an amazingly good job of it for a 17-year-old) managed to score two tickets “up in the rafters with the birds” for this production, back when the Metropolitan Opera was taking their company on the road after their New York season was over.

I knew almost nothing about the genre. Occasionally I’d spend weekends with my widowed grandmother in the East-Side-of-Cleveland apartment she shared with her daughter, my unmarried aunt and my dad’s oldest sister. Aunt Anne was a classical music fan who spun her 78s for me while we played Old Maid on the kitchen table. She also listened to the Texaco Met broadcasts every Saturday on WCLV, but they formed more of a background for me than an active point of interest. (She also took me to my first-ever classical music concert; when I was around 11 we saw dueling pianists Ferrante & Teicher)

Nonetheless I was glad to have a free ticket, so I went blithely along, not exactly sure what was in store. Our seats were REALLY a long distance from the stage, in a rectangular building with poor acoustics. I had to lean out over the row of seats below me and twist my head to the right in order to see what was going on. Naturally I wasn’t smart enough to have brought binoculars.

If you’re familiar with the opera, you know that it’s Verdi’s most flamboyant. Musically he pulls out all the stops with choruses massing, trumpets blaring and TWO ballets! At the end of Act II, which contains no fewer than three (count ’em, three) endings—two of them false dénouements—I sat there with my mouth agape at the sheer spectacle of it all.

I sure wish I remember the names of the tenor, baritone and mezzo. I suppose I could dig through the Met archives and find them—and perhaps I will one of these days. But I sure recall who sang the title role: Leontyne Price. In ’69 she was at the top of her game, I later learned, and I left the Auditorium that night with memories that remain with me 36 years later.

I’ve seen “Aida” live three times since then. One was in the mid-1990s, an Opera Colorado production that was one of Nathaniel Merrill’s last with the company. I believe that Elizabeth Holleque sang Aida, but I could be wrong. I DO remember the Amonasro, though—Yalun Zhang. If his name’s not familiar to you, more’s the pity. He was the Denver-area Met Competition winner in 1990 or so, and one of Merrill’s local finds. Not only does he have a marvelously rich baritone voice, but he’s also one of the finest actors I’ve ever seen on stage. He sang the title role in “Rigoletto” for Opera Colorado and was brilliant. Do you know the part in “Aida” where Amonasro first makes his appearance? He’s a nondescript member of the slave crowd that’s being paraded in front of Il Re in Act II when he’s recognized by Aida as her father. He cautions her not to let on that he is actually the Nubian king. Well, in this particular production, when Zhang burst out of the crowd and began to sing, his dramatic presence sent a physical signal through the crowd. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

The next time I saw “Aida” was while I was on a business trip to Central Europe. I stayed two nights at the InterContinental in Bucharest, Romania, in January 1997. The opera house was about two miles from my hotel. The best seats in the house cost the equivalent of US$1.97. I have no idea who the singers were (Romanians all), but it was a lot of fun to see what was by then an old favorite in quite an unusual setting—and their Italian wasn’t bad, either. The part that I recall the clearest, though, is again from Act II where the slaves parade in front of the king. Because the ensemble was small, they walked from one side of the stage to the other, ran around backstage, and came through several more times until that particular chorus was ended. By the way, I went to the opera again the next night and saw Mozart’s “Escape from the Seraglio,” sung in Romanian!

My most recent experience with “Aida” live was at the Met about three years ago. My wife and I flew to NYC specifically to see Dwayne Croft in Renee Fleming’s revival of Bellini’s “Il Pirata.” We bought tickets online for both performances—coincidentally the exact same seats for both nights, the last row on the main floor tucked up against the sound booth—which ran us about $100 each. It was pricey but worth every penny.

I believe that the production we saw at the Met was the same Zefferrelli one that I have on DVD, with Placido Domingo as Radames. In the performance we saw, Dolora Zajick was easily the star of the show. Her Amneris was both dramatic and powerful.

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