Anna Netrebko is the standout performer in a spectacular new Aida at the 100th Verona Opera Festival

ItalyItaly Verdi’s Aida at the 100th Arena di Verona Opera Festival 2023 [1]: Soloists, Ballet, Chorus and Orchestra of Arena di Verona / Marco Armiliato (conductor). Broadcast live on Rai1 from the Arena di Verona, 16.6.2023. (JPr)

Yusif Eyvazov (Radamès) and Olesya Petrova (Amneris) © Ennevifoto / Arena di Verona

Direction, Set design, Costumes, Lighting design, Choreography – Stefano Poda
Chorus master – Roberto Gabbiani

King of Egypt – Simon Lim
Aida – Anna Netrebko
Radamès – Yusif Eyvazov
Amneris – Olesya Petrova
Amonasro – Roman Burdenko
Ramfis – Michele Pertusi
Priestess – Francesca Maionchi
A messenger – Riccardo Rados

June 16 was the first night of the 100th Arena di Verona season and it is not much of a surprise that it began with a new production of Aida. I have been to watch opera in Verona only once before and in 1980 sat on the stone steps high up in the amphitheatre when, of course, I saw Aida, conducted by the late Italian opera maestro, Nello Santi. Now in 2023 the arena looked as full (it can hold 20,000) as it did then with the great and the good of Italian society in attendance including the President Sergio Mattarella and the 88-year-old Sophia Loren arriving on the red carpet. There apparently was just time for the national anthem and a flypast before it started raining and proceedings were suspended for several minutes. Eventually the weather relented for conductor Marco Armiliato to raise his baton for the opening prelude and even though flashes of lightning were occasionally seen around the arena during the performance there was no further interruption.

Having set aside its 2002 Franco Zeffirelli Aida the new one was entrusted to Stefano Poda and he is responsible for everything – including the sets, costumes, lighting and choreography – because he strives for ‘aesthetic and conceptual unity’. Poda has explained how ‘The audience will be greeted with a grand installation: modernity is not merely about chasing after the contemporary but taking a leap into the future. The ancient Egyptian heritage becomes Verdi’s own, transformed into an all-Italian treasure represented within a secular cathedral – a sacred and age-old space ready to harness the finest energy Italy has to offer’. When I go to the ballet, I often watch dancers – possibly in the same costumes and on the same sets – recreating exactly those steps of their legendary predecessors in a direct line from when the ballets were first choreographed, often several decades ago. We watch this admiringly and uncomplainingly, though for many opera companies it seems an entirely different matter since they are abiding by Wagner’s maxim ‘Kinder, macht Neues!’ (‘Children, do something new!’) when he wanted his works to be continually reinvigorated for the audience of the day. Poda’s Aida is something new and a remarkable – and memorable – spectacle where his greatest achievements are the costumes, frequently sparking and reflective, whether crystal encrusted or mirrored, and his handling of the crowd scenes featuring the Egyptians, especially the priests, priestesses, ministers and soldiers, as well as the Ethiopian prisoners.

Groups of the ‘ordinary’ Egyptians are in black as a frequently writhing or pleading mass of humanity. Often those we see onstage wear red gloves and have red footwear whilst the priests wear the masks of Egyptian gods. Egyptian-style standards fringe the huge performing space or are carried and are often topped by a hand or fist. Poda’s ‘installation’ is itself a massive – and hugely imposing – hand made of wire to the rear of the stage which he says, ‘represents human power and the capability it has from killing to creating or striking down or raising up.’ And come down, go up and move it does also it allows characters to enter through it. At the end of the opera, it will hover over the small see-through pyramid that Aida and Radamès retreat into. There is more than a hint of sci-fi to what we see, and it references the Stargate and Star Wars films, especially the latter when long LED white neon tubes are wafted like light sabres in Act III suggesting reed beds on the banks of the Nile. There are also a lot of them outlining the steps of the arena behind the stage with extras moving across carrying them from time to time. Laser lights beam out into the night sky and are very effective when they outline a larger pyramid with a silver globe at the apex.

Frequent leitmotifs are the Eye of Horus and hieroglyphics seen on the costumes and Aida at one point seems to wear an undershirt with a jumble of words from the opera itself on it. Otherwise, Anna Netrebko’s Aida looks amazing in a variety of multicoloured tasselled dresses (which are quite difficult to otherwise describe), mostly white in the first act, green and blue at the start of the second, and later more like Joseph’s ‘technicolour dreamcoat’. At the end she will be shrouded in white as Radamès will be and he also wears a variety of cloaks. Amneris is either in black or red gowns with impressive headpieces though Amonasro, Aida’s father, is in leathers and looks like a biker who has wandered in from another production entirely. The colour of all we see worn is generally black or white, but it goes without saying that most of the costumes sparkle or otherwise reflect light and the stage pictures are frequently stunning.

Poda’s direction was at its best when the stage relatively cleared and the singers were left alone in the spotlight. Some of the rest you will see could have you scratching your head: however – for once – that didn’t matter much to me because it is such a remarkable spectacle. The ballets are very odd with the first one in the Amneris scene having figures whirling like dervishes or collapsing to the stage at the end and being carried off. Then the second during the triumphal scene, has men and women gesticulating, saluting, clapping and the stylised movement – which is so regimented – looked like the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games. Poda had bandaged bodies brought in on trollies for Amneris to trick Aida into believing Radamès was one of them. At the start of the last act Radamès is unusually centre stage in a web of red ropes and ribbons which Amneris must negotiate in order to plead with him – because she loves Radamès – to save himself by denying the accusations against him of plotting against Egypt, but he does not want to live on without Aida.

Roman Burdenko (Amonasro) and Anna Netrebko (Aida) © Ennevifoto / Arena di Verona

Anna Netrebko confirmed with this performance her place as the leading Verdi soprano by some margin of this generation. Her Aida was consummately sung and acted and will have rarely been equalled – let alone bettered – in recent years. She is on very top form and frequently moved very balletically throughout the opera from her first appearance as Radamès’s vision of his beloved during ‘Celeste Aida’ when she paws at him. Netrebko’s legato was perfect, her lyricism perfectly controlled, and she sang several infamously difficult passages with uncommon ease; whether standing facing front or with her back to the audience or – as for her final exquisite ‘pietà’ in her Act II duet with Amneris – lying down on her back. In ‘Ritorna vincitor’ every note was crafted to perfection and ‘O patria mia’ was deeply reflective and heartfelt. There are no makeup concerns this year as Netrebko’s Aida only has blue eyeshadow and her face half-masked in shiny red.

Singing alongside her husband, Yusif Eyvazov, their voices blended perfectly together in their duets. Eyvazov’s Radamès could be described as brawny, but he too is capable of some refined singing when required. Whilst ‘Celeste Aida’ lacked a certain grace, by the time Radamès is buried together with Aida at the end of the opera, Eyvazov showed impressive reserves of stamina for a heartachingly sad ‘La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse’ and the intimacy of the final ‘O terra addio’ duet. His acting is more rudimentary than Netrebko’s, but Poda makes the wide-eyed Radamès physically burdened by his conflicting emotions and everything that happens to him during the course of the opera.

Olesya Petrova is a name new to me, though she was a former finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. It took a little time for Petrova’s powerful mezzo-soprano voice, that has a wide range and a rich, dark sound, to gain true focus. Amneris is the Pharaoh’s daughter, and it is her rank that gives her innate command and Petrova made her imperious, stern, and unforgiving, yet with an underlying vulnerability. Roman Burdenko was a physically imposing Amonasro and with his stolid bearing and expressive baritone he made Aida’s father a real character rather than the cypher he can too often be. Elsewhere perhaps the singing wasn’t of the same standards as that of this quartet of principals, yet performances were solid enough: Michele Pertusi was a stern and authoritative Ramfis and Simon Lim brought a magisterial presence to a firmly sung King of Egypt.

Marco Armiliato is a known quantity in music like this and it sounded as if his accomplished musicians gave a robust account of Verdi’s score. He brought out some exquisite colours, even if was not the most nuanced Aida you are likely to hear. I suspect with all those forces massed in front of him it was hard work for Armiliato to maintain orchestra-stage coordination, but it appeared he did this valiantly, giving great support to his soloists and exceptional chorus.

Jim Pritchard

2 thoughts on “Anna Netrebko is the standout performer in a spectacular new <i>Aida</i> at the 100th Verona Opera Festival”

  1. Thank you for pointing me in the direction of this performance. i have now watched it on consecutive nights and whilst my first one was on my phone(!) and was largely ‘meh’ my second was on my TV and was largely ‘wow’. No admirer of Netrebko or her (in)significant other, I was blown away by their performances and I thought the whole thing cohered in a way that previous productions I have endured of this problematic work have not. (The problem for Verdi is that productions too often show up the the risibility of the libretto). This was a largely successful attempt at moving away from the ‘Zefferrellian’ mode of production and should be a marker for what can be done to move forward modern interpretations of the core repertory. On the whole the singing was as to be expected, which to this untutored ear was as good as it gets, but then I am more attuned to ‘Regie’ than I am to ‘park and bark’. All in all a thrilling night at the opera, albeit over the ether, and one that shows that opera is not quite beyond resuscitation given the right singers and an imaginative regisseur.

  2. Anna throughout her career has worked so hard to overcome the difficulties in each soprano aria she has encountered.
    She has truly until now blossomed into my favourite soprano voice I have ever heard … some parts were initially difficult for her to master but each and everyone she has eventually made her own. It has been such a joy for me to listen and watch her through the decades. She has had a wonderful career to date and shown such determination and let’s face it, bravery through the unfair media blame that has been attached to her for being a prominent Russian in these unfortunate times. Long may she reign!


Leave a Comment