October 24, 2009
Met HD
Cinemark, Palo Alto, CA

Before I get started, a couple of announcements in case any of you haven’t heard or don’t remember:

  1. A matinee Encore has been added for Tosca and Aida:
    Tosca    1:00 pm, Thursday, October 29
    Aida      1:00 pm, Thursday, November 12
    I have no info as to whether later operas will have matinees. Check your local theater – some of them may not carry it.
  2. This year the Wednesday evening matinees are at 6:30 pm (last year they were at 7).

This weekend I saw three operas in a 28-hour period.  It’s too much, but what can you do?  Saturday morning was the Met HD production of Aida, starting at 10 AM Pacific time; Saturday evening was West Bay Opera’s production of La Bohme; and Sunday I was at the La Scala HD of Maria Stuardo from 11 am to 2 pm.  Now, at 7:30 Sunday night, I am at my computer writing my impressions of the first one.

To merely say, “This is the best Aida I can remember having seen”, would be to damn with faint praise – I’ve seen so few.  I thought it was an excellent production.  The singers all had excellent voices, even though the 3 principles totalled approximately a third of a ton of human flesh.  Somehow that didn’t bother me.  Since Violeta Urmana’s Aida and Dolora Zajick’s Amneris each looked to be about 200 pounds it was not surprising that they would both fall for John Botha’s Radames who was a well-put-together 300 – or he for one of them.  After all this was ancient history when food was generally scarce and obesity was a visible sign of opulence.  And all three voices were tremendous, both singly and in combinations.  The costumes and scenery were great but not too overwhelming.  The spectacles were spectacular but not overdone – I didn’t regret the lack of live elephants in the victory march.  I plan to see it again on November 10.

Before this weekend I most recently saw Aida at Berkeley Opera in 2007.  That production was, without question, the worst production of a great opera that I have ever seen.  In the past Berkeley Opera had done some fascinating innovations such as a condensation of Wagner’s Ring cycle into a single 3-hour opera.  The early writeup of Aida sounded equally good.  It was going to be on a small scale emphasizing the tragic love story of Radames and Aida, without the distraction of the large-scale spectacles featured in most productions.  The result, however, was so bad that, at least in retrospect, it was funny.  Frankly, I never found the presence of elephants on stage nearly as distracting to the love story as a background balcony scene showing the high priest Ramfis in bed (but not asleep) with one of the priestesses – nor of a Network TV technician crawling around the deluxe penthouse apartment of the Pharaoh so that the royal family can be interviewed on TV as they watch the Victory Parade in air-conditioned comfort!  Or during the final scene while Aida and Radames are singing their final duet from the airtight undergound cell, we see the religious and secular big shots sitting around a conference table when a gang of thugs led by Aida’s father Amonasro enters with mayhem in mind.  (In the immortal words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know.”).  Anyhow, if you missed that production, you were wise; if you miss the MetHD production, you are foolish.

I know that as an adult I had seen at least one Aida before that fiasco, but for the life of me I can’t remember any details of where or when, live and/or TV.  I do remember seeing it in the 1930’s when I was in high school at Jones Beach State Park in New York.  The stage was an artificial island a few hundred yards from shore in Zach’s Bay; the audience sat in bleachers on the mainland.  The only thing I remember about the performance is that there there were live elephants in the Victory Parade.  Incidentally, just now I tried to pin down the date with Google and discovered that the current Jones Beach Marine Theatre was built in 1952, but I could not find any reference to an earlier island theatre.

But despite this meager background in Aida performances (one over 70 years ago, one or two totally forgotten, and one that should be forgotten) Aida was familiar.  I had to actively restrain myself from humming along with Radames’ opening aria, Celeste Aida.  And I found myself anticipating chord after chord of Glory to Isis and the following Victory March.  You see, way back in the mid-thirties when I was in Junior High, I took piano lessons.  Among the books that I played from was “Selections from the Operas” with two or three pieces from each of about 2 dozen operas, arranged alphabetically.  So the very first opera piece that I knew was Celeste Aida – and I can still hear every note of it in my mind.  Pleasant Memories.

An easy two-mile drive home, a dip in our outdoor pool, drying in the pleasantly hot late October sunshine, a nice long nap, supper made from leftovers, a 20-minute doze, and a four-mile drive to Lucie Stern theater in Palo Alto, and I was watching

. . . .  But that is another story.


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