Barcelona: Panem, Circenses, et Aïdae!

SpainSpain Verdi, Aïda: Soloists, Liceau Orchestra & Chorus, Renato Palumbo (conductor). Barcelona’s Liceu, 21 & 28.7.2012. (JMI)

Coproduction: Gran Teatre del Liceu and Santander Festival.

Direction: José Antonio Gutiérrez
Sets: Josep Mestres Cabanes (original), Jordi Castells (revival)
Costumes: Franca Squarciapino
Lighting: Albert Faura


Aïda: Sondra Radvanovsky / Barbara Haveman
Radames: Marcello Giordani / Carlo Ventre
Amneris: Ildiko Komlosi
Amonasro: Joan Pons / Ángel Ódena
Ramfis: Vitalij Kowaljow / Attila Jun
King: Stefano Palatchi
Messenger: Josep Fadó
Priestess: Elena Copons

It hasn’t even been five years since the Liceu last put on Aïda. But then that opera remains a draw at any opera house, no matter how often it’s put on… and why deprive the people of the popular. As every Roman Emperor and intendant—including Barcelona’s—knows: Panem, circenses, et Aïdae!
And indeed, the Liceu has found a gold mine in reviving Josep Mestres Cabanes’ 1945 paper trompe-l´oeil sets (restored by Jordi Castell), this being the fourth revival after they were recovered almost 12 years ago.  My most recent review of it was 4 years ago.

Renato Palumbo led the orchestra and proved again that he is a guarantee in the pit of any opera house. He filled the score with life and drama and also always helped the singers. At a time when the great tradition of the Italian Maestro concertatore seems to be in decline, the figure of Renato Palumbo is a rare, outstanding exception. The Liceu’s orchestra responded to his baton and was significantly better than they usually are.

American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky made her debut at Liceu in and as Aïda. She reappeared after almost two months of health problems, following her cancellation in Cyrano de Bergerac at Teatro Real. Her comeback was triumphant, demonstrating that she is as good a Verdi soprano as can be had today. She stole the show with “O, patria mia”, which interrupted the opera with some two minutes of applause. Little wonder—after all it was Plácido Domingo, I think, who rightly said about her voice that it is the most beautiful sad voice in the world.

Barbara Haveman was the second cast’s Aïda and her performance was as compelling dramatically as it was questionable in vocal terms. A lyric soprano, her voice lacks weight to face these types of Verdi roles. She projects well, and the voice responds easily at the top register, but real low notes are virtually nonexistent and she has a hard time to convey emotion in her singing.

Marcello Giordani disappointed as Radames. It’s not unusual for a tenor to blur the aria “Celeste Aïda”, since the voice isn’t warmed up by then, but Giordani was almost pitiful here. Things improved, but there was no brightness in his high notes— always belted in or above forte, while the middle range sounded dull and the lower range was inaudible. Never mind temporary problems that might go away, I do not believe that Radames is a character for his vocal characteristics.

Carlo Ventre’s sound and believable Radames in the second cast, with his well suited voice for the character, was a much better performance than Giordani’s. Ventre—in one of the best performances I have heard from him so far—shone in the most dramatic moments, with an attractive and well-modulated voice at the top, if less so in the center.

When Luciana d’Intino canceled, it brought Ildiko Komlosi, already lined up for the second cast, to the first cast as well. She threw herself into the character without reservations and she was more or less convincing—once you get used to her not too beautiful timbre and her unpleasantly wide vibrato.

Joan Pons also moved to the first cast when Zeljko Lucic cancelled his Amonasro. The Menorcan baritone, who has just officially announced his retirement from the stage, was quite good. After 42 years of activity he has decided to leave the profession at a time when the lack of dramatic baritones could well afford him to extend his singing activities without problems. The audience received him with particularly warmth.

Pons, then, was replaced by Angel Ódena in the second cast who also did remarkably well. Indeed, he could well claim to be the most important Spanish baritone today, pending on the final and much anticipated recovery of Carlos Alvarez.

Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow, one of the few leftovers from the originally announced first cast which had endured a ridiculous amount of changes in the run-up to the premiere, made his Barcelona debut as a very convincing Ramfis, and did so in excellent voice. Korean bass Attila Jun, replacing Giacomo Prestia, did well in the same role in the second cast. Of Pharaoh Stefano Palatchi’s voice, unfortunately, little remains what was once there. In the supporting characters Josep Fadó displayed a much more important voice than is usual for the character of the Messenger and Elena Copons earned merits as the Priestess.

Still, the guarantor of the success of all the productions was Renato Palumbo.

José Mª Irurzun