Tuesday, March 27, 2007
I have decided that if ever a reason was required for opera to exist, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida is it.
My passion for Aida began when I first heard the famous triumphal march from Act 2, Scene 2 - and while carrying a green Tupperware container as my 'trophy' and with a doona wrapped around my shoulders (dragging behind me in a suitably regal, imagined-Eygptian fashion), I found myself swanning around the loungeroom for hours. I remember it vividly, still ... the realisation that grand opera can be a most divine creation - where occasion, in the truest sense, is celebrated so gloriously that it demands some form of physical engagement.
Nearly 18 years ago, I auditioned for Giuseppe Raffa's Melbourne production of Aida which was to be staged at the Carlton Football Ground. There were to be thousands of extras (including me as a Black Priest), an international cast, a huge orchestra and an even huger chorus! It was all going to be performed on a huge set - the centrepiece of which was a huge Sphinx and two huge pyramids. After all, Aida is huge!
Watching the massive production take shape around me was fantastic, and fortunately, the stage directions - masterful in their simplicity of structure and effect - were uncomplicated. And then the animals arrived, and Act 2, Scene 2 would never be the same again! Elephants, camels, tigers, lions, snakes and horses would star as Egypt flaunted the spoils of a triumph at war against the Ethiopians. Now the cynical amongst you might wonder why they nicked everything from the zoo and not the art gallery, but borrowed art is de rigeur on the opera stage these days - and nothing compares to elephants making an entrance. Besides, nothing in the program notes suggested that Ethiopia even had an art gallery ... or a zoo. I digress.
The horses, however, were another matter. After we had made our way on stage for my beloved Act 2, Scene 2, Radames (the hero) made his entrance - on horseback. Now, having grown up with horses I know that they smell fear. I also know that of the 1,499 people on stage with me that night, there were probably one or two (possibly incredibly stupid extras?) who were not apprehensive about what might happen next - which of course it did. The lead horse's nostrils started flaring. He was terrified, and started to panic - as did the other horses on stage ... and for the tiniest moment I thought we were all going to be trampled in an impossibly overdressed stampede. As troopers, we held our ground ... until the horses were almost right on top of us, at which point we started to run. Two things stopped us from disappearing entirely: the first being our fear of the eighteen foot drop from the stage to the ground below, and (a distant second) was our professionalism. Somehow, the horses were calmed down and taken offstage. And in the grandest sense of the cliché, the show went on.
My favourite recording of Aida is Herbert von Karajan's 1980 (digitally remastered in 1988 by EMI) masterstroke. Mirelli Freni (Aida), José Carreras (Radames), Agnes Baltsa (Amneris) and Piero Cappuccilli (Amonasro), the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic are beyond magnificent. Often criticised for the imbalance between the orchestra and the vocalists, I would posit that von Karajan probably did this one for the orchestra. And perhaps most profound, is the realisation that Aida is, in fact, far from an elephantine spectacle. Sure, it has its moments of epic drama - and each one is captured perfectly on this recording. But at its musical and spiritual heart is the story of two people who love each other so much that they would rather die together than ever be separated.
Ever loved anyone like that?