Austria 2017 Salzburg Festival  – Verdi, Aida: Soloists, Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Riccardo Muti (conductor). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 12.8.2017. (MB)
King – Roberto Tagliavini
Amneris – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Aida – Anna Netrebko
Radamès – Francesco Meli
Ramfis – Dmitry Belosselskiy
Amonasro – Luca Salsi
Messenger – Bror Magnus Tødenes
High Priestess – Benedetta Torre
Shirin Neshat (director)
Christian Schmidt (set designs)
Tatyana van Walsum (costumes)
Reinhrad Traub (lighting)
Martin Gschlacht (photography)
Thomas Wilhelm (choreography)
Bettina Auer (dramaturgy)
It is a good thing to put even one’s most settled judgements to the test from time to time. Seven years had passed since my most recent encounter with Verdi in the opera house: seven years of (relative) good luck since. If the nauseating La traviata remains a nadir in the benighted ‘repertoire’ – better or worse than Donizetti, or about the same? who cares really? – then the mindboggling tedium of Aida anoints it a serious contender for any such reckoning. However fine the performances, and they were generally excellent here, any revival of so unremittingly banal a work will prove, at best, an absurd misallocation of resources. There is infinitely greater interest in any randomly selected note of Webern. As Boulez memorably put it, ‘Verdi is stupid, stupid, stupid!’ Quite why anyone would claim to know better remains a mystery.
Aida apologists seem to like to laud it essentially as a chamber opera, scenes of intimacy at its heart, contrasting with the pomp and ceremonial of grand opera. Fine, but that is hardly enough. It matters whether such scenes are any good, of any interest. All we have here is a ‘bog standard’ – with apologies, for the first and last time in my life, to Alastair Campbell – clash between public and private, generalised in the extreme, with ‘characters’ so thinly drawn, if indeed they be drawn at all, that a non-partisan listener cannot even begin to care. They all sing the same sort of stuff, about the same sort of stuff, at interminable length – it may be a relatively short opera, but it certainly did not feel like it – to a plot whose implausibility is so contrived as not even to amuse. (Maybe onstage elephants would have helped in that respect, if no other.) La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s or anyone else’s, this is not; indeed, it is difficult to imagine a greater vulgarisation of the classical AMOR/ROMA dilemma. Of all the tragedies of occupation and war, why would the weird self-obsession of a woman who, rather than try to rescue her lover, elects instead to enter a tomb in order that they be buried alive, even register? She deserves no better, but what about poor Radamès? It would be nice to be able to care, but if somehow one manages to do so, it will be on account of a performance, not the work.
Frankly, their sentimental festival of smothering – would they at least not have sex for the first and last time? – cannot come quickly enough, even though it does not. Meyerbeer is more dramatically interesting, certainly more historically important. Perhaps this might work very occasionally as the exhumation of historical curiosity, the recipient of due criticism, but to place such drivel at the heart of the repertoire is too silly even to qualify as ‘edgy’ or critical performance art. If Aida is actually a satire on a well-heeled, self-regarding audience’s willingness to sit through anything, however dull, provided that its abject lack of taste and judgement be flattered, then is it not about time that someone finally explained the joke to that audience?
All that said, there is doubtless something for an interesting director to say; there always will be, even if the work does not deserve it. What one hears about Hans Neuenfels’s Frankfurt Aida sounds fascinating, all the more so for 1981: the slave girl an Ethopian cleaner and a typical Verdi audience screaming blue murder. Likewise Peter Konwitschny for Graz the following decade. Shirin Neshat is certainly not one to join their number; instead, alas, she joins the number of film artists who have nothing much to say about opera, or at least cannot say it. Her production is as dull as the work itself, creditably – I think, but now begin to wonder – shorn of the traditional vulgar trappings, but with nothing to put in their place. There are some half-hearted video images (of course) of refugees, but that is about it, other than a ‘stylish’ look and a vast revolving set which sometimes does not quite revolve as it should. (The second interval seems to have been mightily prolonged on that account.) Could we not at least have had the death-wish slave girl as a suicide bomber or something? Weirdly, she seemed to dress very much as Amneris; perhaps that is what happens when you have Anna Netrebko in the title role. The priests’ slightly strange look initially suggests parody; alas, nothing else does. There is nothing much else to it apart from the designs, at least nothing I could discern.
Netrebko, perhaps needless to say, offered vocalism of a quality that would be spellbinding, were it expended on more interesting material. No degree of vocal shading seemed beyond her, the trademark richness of tone ever present yet variegated. Francesco Meli’s Radamès was every bit as impressive, perhaps still more so, as handsome and noble of tone as of aspect. Ekaterina Semenchuk was every inch the fiery mezzo, again completely in command of her instrument and, insofar as the non-staging permitted, her dramatic performance; I should love to hear (and to see) her as, say, Ortrud. Roberto Tagliavini sounded a bit wooden as the King, but that permitted some degree of contrast with Luca Salsi’s animated Amonasro. Choral singing was excellent throughout, indeed outstanding, as was the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti, its shading every bit as exquisite as Netrebko’s, the sweetness of string tone very much of old. Muti clearly cherishes the score almost beyond price, however incapable I may be of understanding why. His partnership with this orchestra rarely disappoints; here he showed himself once again to play it as if it were a piano under his fingers. If I found the pace rather slow at times, that was doubtless a consequence of my feelings towards the work; enthusiasts, I am sure, would have loved it.
I doubt there can have been many superior performances of the opera throughout its history; I equally doubt that I shall persuade myself to hear another. As for Verdi, see you in another seven years’ time? Perhaps.