I used to dread Saturday afternoons as a kid for the simple reason that from around noon until four pm my mom would listen to Live From The Met: Saturday Afternoon At The Opera brought to you by Texaco of America. Technically speaking of course it wasn't really live as the broadcast had been recorded some time in advance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
Long before Saturday Night Live was on the air the words "Live from New York City" had implications in my household that had nothing to do with comedy. With my parents plunked in front of the stereo for four hours, options for entertainment were limited in these pre cable and home computer only one television in the house world of the late 1960s early 1970s.
Even retreating to my bedroom with a book wasn't any guarantee of sanctuary as voices in opera have a remarkable ability to carry great distances no matter what volume they are played at. It was while attempting to use the "You're always telling me to turn my music down argument" in a desperate bid for relief that I had my first run in with the hypocrisy of music snobbery.
"What you listen to isn't music – this is. Now hush, I'm listening" There's not much of an argument you can muster against reasoning like that, without digging a hole that could see television privileges suspended for an indefinite period. So my only recourse was to suffer through those interminable Saturday afternoons, with only the awareness that winter at least meant there would be a hockey game to look forward to as compensation
Of course no matter how much I tried to avoid it the inevitable happened and I began to learn about Opera. At first it was a matter of name recognition; Verdi, Mozart, Bizzet, Rossini, and Wagner I learnt were the evil geniuses responsible for things like Don Giovanni(Mozart), Carmen(Bizzet), The Barber of Seville(Rossini), Kill The Wabbit(Wagner), and Aida by Giuseppe Verdi.
Now even as a kid there were some of the orchestral bits that even I could see the attraction in. The "Triumphal March" in Aida was probably the first bit of orchestral music I learned to recognize outside of Wagner's contributions to Bugs Bunny. Not only did it seem to show up on a regular basis on Saturday afternoons but, horrors of horrors, my parents owned a copy of it, and could be counted on inflicting a full playing of the damned thing at least once a year.
In some sort of bizarre variation of the Stockholm Syndrome, where those who are kidnapped fall for their kidnappers, I found to my horror I wasn't only beginning to like the opera, I was learning to appreciate it. I came to understand how the music and the voices worked together to build an emotional moment. I learned the chorus that at had first sounded like so much discordant noise was in actual fact a key part of the orchestral arrangements; in affect harmonizing with the orchestra and the melody of whatever segment was being performed at the time.
Aida was commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, which coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal. Due to unforeseen circumstances, like the Franco/Prussian War trapping the sets in Paris, the opening was delayed. So instead of opening in 1869 when originally scheduled its premiere was in December of 1871.
It seems I wasn't the only one impressed by the "Triumphal" and it has since become one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music. Aidia itself is considered one of the big three of Opera along with Bizzet's Carmen and Puccini's La bohème and remains one of the most frequently performed to this day.
As with all the really popular Operas there are also a great number of recordings of Aida on the market, and finding the right one to purchase could be a challenge. In spite of its popularity Aida is still a difficult piece to perform due to the challenges faced by the singers to live up to the history of the piece, and the opulence required to do it justice.
Given the tale is set in the court of the ancient Pharaoh's of Egypt and there are key scenes aside from the "Triumphal," the singers have to be able fill the spaces with presence and sound lending credibility to the environment and their characters. Not just any singer can play the General of the Pharaoh's army and have the charisma to make both the Pharaoh's daughter and the beauteous slave girl, Aida, fall in love with him.
Conversely it takes a special singer to be able to convince an audience this same officer would be willing to throw everything away, even his life, for one who is merely a slave, especially when he could have the hand of the Princess in marriage. She must be pretty hot stuff for any of that to happen. Together they must be able to show their love is so deep he will trade his country's military secrets for her sake as it turns out she is the daughter of the King Of Ethiopia, the country Egypt is currently at war with.
There is a reason daytime serial television is referred to as an opera with their predominance of star crossed lovers and intricate plots. Larger then life characters and circumstances are other elements that the two forms have in common. In some ways really, Aida is just an even more overblown soap opera than usual whose integrity comes not from any intellectual story line, but from the music.
So it comes down to the singers and the orchestra making the difference in the quality of the performance. While some might question the merits of a live performance, with the risks of sound problems or other unforeseeable accidents that can happen compared to the guarantees of a studio performance, the live version of Aida that Opera D'oro has on offer currently has compensations that make up for any drawbacks in sound quality.
The cast is headed by Placido Domingo, who in 1972 when this production was recorded, was rounding into form as one of the outstanding tenors of his generation. Pavarotti may have become more renowned then Domingo, but that didn't stop him from being his equal as a vocalist. Domingo is convincing and persuasive as the newly promoted General of the Pharaoh's armies.
Aida is performed by one of the lesser known sopranos of the day, Martina Arroyo, but what I liked about her performance was her ability to play the role of the character. This is something few opera singers have the capacity to attempt while delivering on all the musical requirements.
But an opera lives and dies with its conductor, and it's the presence of Claudio Abbado and the orchestra of The La Scala opera house elevates this production several notches above any other you might hear. Not only does he know when to reign in his singers, but he also knows just the right moments to give them their heads and let loose.
He is able to pace the opera in such a manner that by the end when the lovers Aida and General Radames are signing of their undying love while awaiting execution, they have enough left in the tank to sound as fresh and strong as they did in the first act. A conductor who lets a singer reach his or her zenith too early in a production sets up the rest of the opera to be a disappointment.
Of course to have that kind of control, one must understand the numerous intricacies of both the libretto and the score if he is going to make it work. Abbado seems to have been weaned on this opera, so smooth and seamless are all the transitions from moment to moment and scene to scene.
Aida may be one of the more popular and well known of the major operas, but that doesn't mean it is easy to come by a recording of quality. Opera D'oro has released a beautifully performed, masterly conducted and lovingly recorded live version that will supplant any existing recording in your collection.