Verdi – Aida

Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, October 24 2004

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production: Robert Wilson. Aida: Michèle Crider. Radamès: Badri Maisuradze. Amneris: Marianne Cornetti. Amonasro: Andrzej Dobber. Ramfis: Orlin Anastassov. Il Re: Guido Jentjens.

Should it have been called “Amneris”?

How often, I wonder, in Verdi operas, does it happen that the mezzo, realising her fellow leads aren’t up to scratch, decides to take over the whole show? That’s what happened with the cast of Sunday’s Aida at La Monnaie in Brussels. Marianne Cornetti’s round, powerful mezzo stood head and shoulders above her principal colleagues, while the latter demonstrated just how hard Verdi really is and how outstanding are those singers, sopranos especially where Aida is concerned, who magically allow us to forget the fact.

I had not heard Michèle Crider before, but often read her name: she’s forging a career in major European houses. Did she, perhaps, have the cold that half of the continent seems to be suffering from at the moment? At the start of the opera in particular, her voice lacked body; as a result, her top end was pinched and metallic to the point of stridency and the medium inaudible over the orchestra. (A friend ominously suggests that in short-lived operatic careers, "it’s the medium that goes first.") Her control became unsteady when any agility was required by the score, and often she sang sharp. She was unable to float the high notes in O patria mia – “ouch!” we winced. Yet at times she produced some beautiful sounds that hinted at the reasons behind her European success.

Badri Maisuradze, one of these massive, bull-like “tenors” who now emerge from the former Soviet Union, produced none. His voice has none of the grace or éclat you might hope for in a Verdian tenor: it is flat – both flat, or matt, in tone and sometimes flat in intonation – and congested-sounding, hoarse almost. Perhaps he had a cold too?

The supporting basses were good and the chorus was excellent. The orchestra was oddly lacklustre, unusual under their director Kazushi Ono.

And the production? I’m tempted to recycle what I wrote about the recent Pelléas in Paris. Indeed I will: “… Wilson-by-the-yard, reminiscent of Rossini’s quip about Wagner: some lovely moments but ‘de très mauvais quarts d'heure.’ A broad, mostly empty stage; an occasional avant-garde prop; black, mobile pillars for trees; some sticks lowered down for the garden; carefully-calculated lighting, mostly blue; white faces; simple costumes; nô-like poses and gestures.”

Here, the particularly mauvais quart d’heures came from the ballets (as usual at the opera); the black, mobile pillars represented pillars, not trees; and on the whole, this reprise looked under-rehearsed and lacked the absolute precision of gesture and lighting needed to bring a Wilson show off. But for the Nile act, there was a lovely little sandy-coloured maquette of distant ruins rising from the desert across the river, and in the final act we saw that the less there was on stage and the darker the lighting, the better it was. When this production first appeared in 2002, Brussels loved it. Later, even more promisingly, the London critics hated it: anything that sets them grinding their teeth is worth investigating. The cast looked good on paper and I had high hopes. In the event, apart from Marianne Cornetti, whom I'd be glad to hear again, a disappointing afternoon.

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