Friday, March 9, 2012

La Scala: Aida Part Two

As I wrote in my blog post on Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend my very first opera at the internationally-renowned Theatro alla Scala last Sunday. After electing to spend the night in a moderately-priced but more than adequate hotel and wolfing down a rather unconventional pre-opera meal of a Big Mac and fries, I found myself sitting in one of the best seats in the theatre shortly before the curtain rose. Both in awe and filled with extreme excitement, I prepared myself for what was set to be a magical evening.

Although my seat was just one of six places that were contained within the exquisite room which overlooked the main stage, I was all alone with only several minutes to go before Aida was scheduled to begin. I had just started to wonder if anyone would show up at all when suddenly I heard the door being unlocked by an usher and swung around to be greeted by a middle-aged Japanese businessman. He introduced himself in fluent Italian without a hint of accent and explained that the nature of his job meant that he spent a great deal of time in Milan. Opera, he admitted, had become one of his guilty pleasures over the years. The lights dimmed as he settled into his seat and the final latecomers hurriedly found their places in the dark. The orchestra began to play its opening number, an emotive piece which assured me that I was going to enjoy the performance a great deal before the curtain even rose. When it finally did rise, the set that it revealed was magnificent and the opera’s main protagonists delivered their opening notes to thunderous applause.

For those of you who are not familiar with Aida, it is a Guiseppe Verdi opera that tells the story of an Ethiopian princess, Aida, who is captured and enslaved in Egypt. Although the Egyptians have no idea as to her true identity, she manages to become a servant in the royal household. During this time she falls madly in love with Radames, who is the captain of the king’s guard. Although Radames shares Aida’s feelings of passion, he is also pursued by the king’s persistent daughter, Amneris. The result is the formation of a dramatic love triangle which ultimately leads to the tragic deaths of both Radames and Aida, who fittingly die in one another’s arms in the opera’s final scene.

I had already read a synopsis of the opera before attending the event and was immediately thankful that I had done so because keeping up with the plot would have been virtually impossible if I hadn’t. Although the words to many of the songs were quite repetitive, I still had a difficult time making sense of them and had to glance at the handy personal lyrics screen, which was located directly in front of my seat, from time to time to figure things out.

The first round of solos, which were delivered by Roberto Tagliavini, Luciana D’Intino, Oksana Dyka and Stuart Neill respectively, were all excellently performed judging from the audience’s reaction. I was particularly fond of Stuart Neill’s portrayal of Radames because he was especially emotive and full of energy. The set, props and costumes were also one of the highlights of the opera for me. The Egyptian backdrop gave the designers a license to create the extravagant. Massive statues of Egyptian Gods and pharaohs featured heavily in every scene and the colour palette was filled with sandy yellows and other hues that added texture to the set. There were giant feathers, gold encrusted chariots and fabulous dancers performing on the stage. The costumes were bold and filled with detail. My favourite was without a doubt the look that the king’s personal guards sported. It included gold armour and red garments, bold royal blue body paint and some very fierce-looking spears. When both the vocal and visual elements combined, they created an experience for both my eyes and ears that left me feeling quite satisfied.

When the lights came back on to signal the first intermission, I decided to explore the foyer below and people watch while sipping on a prosecco. Many of the huge crowd in attendance filed their way into the tiny space and chattered amongst one another happily. Much to my surprise, there were all types of people present. There were the tourists wearing floor length gowns, The Milanese, who wore black and little jewellery and even people who were dressed extremely casually. I even saw several men wearing very dark jeans, something that I would have previously imagined to be impossible at La Scala.

Before I had even set out on my journey to Milan, I had taken a chance and emailed well-respected opera blogger, Opera Chic and asked if she would be present at the event. I figured that I had absolutely nothing to lose by asking her to meet up with me during the intermission and everything to gain. After all, who would be a better person to discuss Aida with than an opinionated American who visits La Scala on a regular basis? Unfortunately for me, Opera Chic responded to my inquiry that she would not be attending the evening’s opera, but wished me a pleasant first opera nonetheless.

Weaving my way through the people, I figured that I probably would not find anyone to talk to when I was stopped by a glamorous, blonde woman wearing bright red lipstick and a stunning knee-length Prada dress. I recognised her immediately from the room where my seat was located. She had entered mid-way through the first act and therefore I had paid little notice when she first arrived. She spoke with a thick American accent and we proceeded to have a polite conversation. Before returning to our seats she commented on my outfit, noting that it reminded her of what had just paraded down the Prada runway several weeks before. Later on in the evening I was to discover that she was actually a Prada employee herself and felt instantly like a sophisticated jet-setter as opposed to a starry-eyed girl who pulled a few things together from the back of her closet. Fashion may seem like a trivial thing to some, but for me, I was on cloud nine in that moment!

Once the opera resumed, the final three acts of Aida were just as amazing as the first one. In the most impressive scene of all, a victorious Radames returns to Egypt after fighting the Ethiopians. The scene is known as the “Triumphal March” and as well as being the most powerful vocal number, it was also the most visually spectacular. In addition to a colourful procession, there were beautiful displays of dancing and at one point there were even real horses parading around on the stage.

As the opera neared its climax, the story of Aida and the love of her life, Radames took a tragic turn. In the final acts Radames is discovered disclosing the location of the Egyptian army to Aida’s father, the king of Ethiopia thus betraying his country and sealing his fate. In the final scene of the opera, Ramades is sentenced to be essentially buried alive inside an underground tomb as a result of his treason. Resigned to his fate and with a distraught Amneris weeping above, he enters the tomb to find that Aida has managed to sneak inside. Willingly, she agrees to share Ramades’s fate.

The stage lights dimmed as the two tragic protagonists shared a final embrace. Those in attendance cheered and some even shouted “Bravo! Bravo!” from all around the theatre. I have heard that the crowd at La Scala are often a vocal bunch, even to the point of throwing out boos if they are not fully satisfied. I therefore am fairly sure that I witnessed an outstanding performance of Aida. As the lights turned on and the people who had so eagerly arrived more than four hours earlier began to filter their way out of the building, I took one last look at La Scala. What an enchanting venue and overall what an unforgettable evening. It’s not very often that one talks about achieving perfection, but in this case my La Scala experience came pretty close. My only gripe was that when I finally left, the McDonalds where I had eaten my dinner earlier was already closed. I had yet another craving and it would have been nice to round the evening off with another greasy snack! Oh well, maybe next time.

**On a side note, if you would like to see a few clips from the version of Aida that I just wrote about, go to the following link:

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