I spent some of yesterday watching a DVD of Verdi’s Aida, the one from Zurich with Nina Stemme in the title role. I’ve seen this one before, ages ago, and I remembered the split screen video direction (for example, in several scenes, you see say, Amneris in one part of the screen, Aida in another, and a long shot showing the entire stage at the bottom) and the general concept, which places the story in late nineteenth-century Egypt, when the country was occupied by the British.
I was moved to do this because (this is somewhat embarrassing) I was in the Met’s gift shop a while back and I heard a really lovely recording of Aida playing – it was part of the first act, and whoever was singing Aida was really on fire that day – and I realized I hadn’t heard the opera in a while. And then I realized that the audio was in fact a video, and I watched it long enough to notice that it was rather strange that the soprano’s arms were a noticeably different color than her face – and then about two seconds later, it registered that despite her dark skin, she did not appear to be African-American; and then a bit after that I realized that the performer was wearing basically blackface. It’s an old video; I wasn’t exactly surprised or taken aback – it was more of one of those “huh, right, I forgot they really did do that” moments.
The presence of a non-tinted and yet nevertheless entirely convincing Nina Stemme in the title role of the Zurich version suggests that that 1970s or 1980s soprano, whoever she was, probably didn’t need the extra layer of dark makeup. Indeed, that’s usually my reaction to making the singer playing Aida, or Othello, or whoever, darker than they normally are – it strikes me as so completely unnecessary. I mean, it’s not like no one ever mentions in the libretto that she’s Ethiopian. (Also, I wonder if anyone has written extensively about the use and abandonment of blackface in “high art” things like opera, as supposed to minstrel shows and things like that? I’m sure someone must have)
But anyway. I think I have got my Aida fix for the time being. I then moved on to two bel canto albums I got cheap a while back, Vivica Genaux’s Bel Canto Arias and Elina Garanca’s ditto. I have occasionally kvetched in the past about Donizetti and Rossini and all that, but Garanca in particular was on the edge of changing my mind. It was the excerpts from Maria Stuarda that caught my attention – there was something distinct about Garanca’s performance (these are the mezzo arias, Elizabeth’s, not Mary’s) that made me pay a bit more attention to it than I usually do. It’s one of those things that struck me sort of nebulously on first hearing, and I was worried that it would elude me on re-listening (I don’t know about you, but my impressions tend to be sharpest the first time I go through something, which occasionally leads to procrastination in listening to things because I’m afraid I’ll do it wrong). But it was still there. It reminded me of how much I liked her as Giovanna in Anna Bolena, something of the same quality that made her Sesto interesting when I heard that a while back. A kind of solidness and seriousness in the sound that translates into different characters in different ways. I am not sure at this point that I am going to go and listen to MORE bel canto – in fact, I am pretty sure that I’m not – but it was a nice way to spend an hour or so.