The Stage The End of a Saga

La Scala's production of 'Aida' arrived in Israel on the wings of international success and reminded us that opera was once a glittering social event.

The first two acts of "Aida" were enough for my colleague Haggai Hitron to determine (Haaretz, July 15) that the production met all expectations and "stands among the top opera productions that have come to the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center." If I disagree with him on certain aspects, it is not because his impressions were written based on only part of the work (in order to make it in time for the paper's deadline). It is well known that it is unnecessary to drink the entire barrel of wine to realize it is of fine quality. After all, the vintage (1871) is a good one, the grape variety (Giuseppe Verdi) is excellent, the reputation of the winery (La Scala) speaks for itself, and the vintners (Franco Zeffirelli, who directed it in 1964, and Daniel Barenboim, conducting) are among the best there are in each respective field.

For me, who lasted through last Tuesday's entire performance, through all seven hours of its twists and turns (and soon I will elaborate), there is nothing left to do other than report, after I digested the experience and took a vacation to recover, on all the other elements surrounding the music - including one that is no less important, and that is the theater.

The beginning was long before Barenboim raised his arm for what is known in musical lingo as the "up-beat," which according to Barenboim is one of the most important moments in a musical performance: the manner in which the conductor prepares everyone - the musicians, the singers and the audience - for the experience that is about to begin. About an hour and a half earlier, those attending the opening night were served the tastiest refreshments, including wine, in a closed off area in the entrance of the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center - all included in the price of a ticket.

The whole world, along with their wives and husbands, were there in their finest summer evening clothes, sitting on period furniture, as befits the opera. Everyone was happy to meet and prepare for the experience; foreign languages predominated, and it turned out there were even some who came especially to Israel in order to experience this event. They were also in no hurry to enter the auditorium, which in the end was filled to capacity, and the ushers worked hard to hurry them along to find their seats.

Like something from 100 years ago

The first notes were sounded as the curtain was still down. Such soft piano notes have not been heard in this auditorium in a good long time. A hushed silence filled the auditorium, because Verdi and Barenboim know that even in a war-filled and stormy opera such as "Aida," the audience's attention and concentration is gripped with long, soft melodic lines, so much so that the applause at the end of the opening sounded almost like a desecration. And then the curtain rose.

Here I must disagree with my learned colleague who wrote that "The grandeur of the stage is not excessive, but rather is tastefully and effectively done, and the same is true of the acting." This is, of course, also a matter of taste, but it must be said that this production looks like something done 100 years ago and completely ignores what has happened on theater stages, and primarily the opera, over the last few decades.

The set is based on large colored screens, which present with a kind of stylized realism the manner in which - in Italy of a half-century ago - they imagined ancient Egypt, under the influence of archeological exhibitions but with the vulgarization dictated by the operatic medium.

The stage featured huge copies of ancient Egyptian temples, which required three short breaks for technical arrangements during which the audience is asked to remain seated, as well as three long intermissions of thirty minutes each (during the first two, the snacks served on the house continued to be offered, including malabi, a well-known Italian dessert). The result was around three hours of music and theater, and a slightly longer social event. But that is okay. That's what opera once was: art as a social-cultural event.

The main problem, as mentioned, was the staging. There was no attempt at any political update, heaven forbid, even though "Aida" is about war, captivity, national liberation, betrayal and crossing borders. There were many "grand" scenes, such as the carrying of the gods in the victory parade (there were two horses, but for some reason no donkey). There were also some sordid scenes: for example, an Ethiopian female captive carried aloft while bound to what appears to be some bonfire wood. And incidentally, while on the subject of grandeur, if I were Radames I would have been insulted had they presented me with a torn and tattered rag on a stick and sung (very well) to me that this is the battle flag I must bring to the god of war.

Zeffirelli is a master of moving masses on the stage. However, the TAPAC stage, as big as it may be in Israeli terms, is just too small for this production. The many singers and dancers and actors were crowded onto the stage and the structures placed on it; the dancers, a pair of soloists and dark-skinned children and adults, symbolizing Ethiopians, danced energetically in a terribly overcrowded space.

Enjoy the music

Because the New Israeli Opera was established, as it openly states, to perform opera as innovative theater, and not as museum pieces, it is rather odd that it chose to host something as outdated as this illustrious La Scala production. But here a heretical thought sneaks in: perhaps the efforts to turn opera into a modern medium are serenading under the wrong window? After all, Verdi wrote this cultural, conceptual framework that has an artificial and false theatrical element to it. This cynical view is perceived in advance as a visual convention and without any pretense of reliability or an aesthetic, theatrical statement in its own right. Perhaps the only way to perform it is to let the eyes feast on the necessary minimum, without challenging them, and let the other senses enjoy the music, which will do the artistic work, without the theater interfering with it?

That is why the fighting prince can be small and somewhat rotund, and the beloved maiden a large woman who moves with regal nobility. What is important is the voice, not the body or the clothing. This is the kind of production of which it may be written "a refrigerator steeped on stage, opened its mouth and emitted sounds that made the heart twitter, to the point where you saw the voices." Incidentally, of all the participants, somehow the basses and the baritones always looked relatively good, even in the playful-grand uniforms in the Egyptian style with a touch of thick Italian sauce.

This is also the kind of production in which after every scene the curtain drops and then rises again and the singers step forward for a bow. And of course, the audience bursts into applause after every aria (and most rightly so). Indeed, there is nothing wrong with applause after arias in which the orchestra and the singer perform the last note together, for example in "Heavenly Aida," Radames' first aria. But there are arias where the female singer finishes her notes and the orchestra carries on. Here there is a problem. Verdi knows why he wrote it that way, and Barenboim knows how to keep his hand up until the last note drifts off; only the Israeli audience cannot restrain itself. It bursts into applause the moment the singer cuts off her notes and the orchestral part is swallowed in the clapping. Afterward, when it is over, there is another weak round of applause.

But all's well that ends well. Somewhere around 2:00 a.m. the dazzling operatic saga came to a close, even though at times it seemed longer than the exile and slightly less interesting. In an unusual step, Barenboim brought the entire orchestra up on stage from the pit for a bow, along with the soloists and dancers (the large choir and extras, who do not appear in the fourth act, were allowed to leave earlier). Now we can tell our grandchildren that we heard La Scala in Tel Aviv and "Aida" was never more heavenly. I returned home felling like a hero, like Radames who returned from battle against the Ethiopians.