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Whoopee, Italian Style

Photo by Robert MillardTHE THEATRICAL DIMENSION Nearly a century separates the two beguilements installed at the Music Center in recent weeks: Giuseppe Verdi's Aida of the 1870s and Luciano Berio's Laborintus II of 1965. Nobody would mistake the style or purpose of the one for the other; they are both shrewdly welded to the taste of their respective times. Something grander links them - an innately Italian sense of theater that unites all the arts of the region into a single onrush of word, music and movement. To the north, Richard Wagner made a great fuss as he dreamed up his "total artwork" concept with ream upon ream of explanatory philosophy. To the Italian spirit, that unity of the expressive arts was simply a form of breathing. Petrarch, Monteverdi, Tintoretto, Berio . . . just the names by themselves take on a theatrical dimension. Laborintus II is Berio's love letter to language, one of many. Edoardo Sanguineti is the poet; this was his second Laborintus. He is not so much a collaborator as an alter ego, sharing the same skin; his words are a free-associative ragout. Dante bubbles up - the piece was occasioned by that poet's 700th anniversary - and so do Ezra Pound, biblical phrases, gibberish and Sanguineti's own words. The music is their match; it ranges freely over a broad spectrum of Berio's concerns. Three years later he would create the most famous of his combinative works, the third movement of his Sinfonia; the bursting energy of that spellbinding conception is already here. No other two works that survive the '60s define that wondrous era more forcefully. Try to find the recording on Harmonia Mundi's Musique d'Abord label, conducted by Berio and with Sanguineti himself delivering the poetry, sly, insinuating and wise. What's more, the lead singer is the great Christiane Legrand of the original Swingle Singers, who first brought Sinfonia to life. At Disney Hall, Esa-Pekka Salonen began the latest "Green Umbrella" concert with music of his own - Memoria, a brief, slight, charming wind quintet written for Salonen's own new-music ensemble in Helsinki. The ghosts of Debussy, perhaps also of Berio, sweep across; the writing for horn (Salonen's own instrument, here played by Elizabeth Cook-Shen) is uncommonly eloquent. Colin Matthews' Continuum followed, in its U.S. premiere - tortuous, desiccated settings of two Eugenio Montale poems (sung by Janice Felty, barely audible through thick scoring). Then came the Berio to raise the roof and the spirits. Some deplored the excess of local accent in the roof raising, and it is true that neither William Stone's reading nor Hila Plitmann's coloratura hysteria quite caught the authentic Italianate whoopee of bygone days - when, for example, the set for Sanguineti's own staging at La Scala consisted of undulating penises. I had a great time at Laborintus II, and I'm sorry if you didn't. THE REAL AIDA Given the best-of-all-opera-plots - love versus loyalty - and the genius of Giuseppe Verdi as the world-champion inventor of the right melodies for turning those plots into white-hot music, you would expect the Verdian repertory to loom large among the triumphant pages of any major opera company. The sad fact seems to be, however, that our local company, now nearing its 20th birthday, has yet to mount a completely satisfactory Verdi production. Some of its failures have, in fact, ranked among the worst doozers in its history. (Remember the Kabuki-style Macbeth? The Bruce Beresford Rigoletto?) The current Aida, a revival of the 2000 production that was, in turn, a rerun of the 1987 staging that had inaugurated the new opera house in Houston (the night before the world premiere there of Nixon in China), is not a doozer. Musically, in fact, it belongs in the upper echelon of second-rate local Verdi. A new conductor, the schoolboyish-looking Dan Ettinger (Israeli, 34), keeps things moving nicely and, considering the predilection of his singers to favor the high end of the dynamic range against Verdi's own markings, manages at times to create some sense of ensemble. Michèle Crider is the Aida, new to the company and quite obviously in a family way. Maternal matters aside, she is quite a splendid young singer, possessed of a ravishing top that floats across the Nile like the stars in Verdi's woodwinds and a real heartbreak as the opera's final wisp of melody merges with the darkness. The Radames, Franco Farina (left over from last year's wretched Trovatore), delivers his calling card on his first entrance, a "Celeste Aida" with Verdi's called-for pianissimo annulled by a ringing fortissimo. A much more impressive fortissimo later in the evening, however, is delivered by the Amonasro, Lado Ataneli, on his opening line at the end of Act 2, and it suddenly hits you that this is the first male singing of genuine quality that you've heard all evening. He's a wonderful singer, this Ataneli he was the Nabucco a couple of years ago; the problem is that he outsings the ensembles. Irina Mishura acts out her Amneris as a Theda Bara villainess in some silent (but hardly silent) movie. Vera Calábria's new staging makes do without some of Pier-Luigi Pizzi's Egyptian-museum props, which cluttered his original version; a few more could go. The production is in no way handsome. The sliding panels that set off scenes are ugly in themselves and boring in their use; the pillars in Amneris' boudoir bring on nostalgia for New York subway stations. And then there is the matter of the battling life-size toy elephants and other ludicrous onstage happenings during what is hopefully titled the "Triumphal Scene." That scene begins and ends with grand, sweeping choruses and ensembles that pin you to your seat with the Italianate melodic ecstasy I was talking about back there. In between comes an expanse of orchestral music - 10 minutes, or so it seems - that is meant to accompany pantomimes and dances as the Egyptians exult at their victory over the Ethiopians. Some of it is new; some of it, Verdi's rehash of music previously heard (a speeded-up version of "Ritorna, vincitor," for example); all of it is inferior to anything else in the opera. Minus one or two repeats, the current Aida includes this whole sequence, with a bunch of swell acrobats to help pass the time and to help make the opera into an entertainment package to compete with any other package now in town bearing the same title. I am ordinarily disinclined to advocate incomplete performances, least of all in music I otherwise admire. In this case, however, less would be definitely more.