The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Aida II

I said before that I had two thoughts on Aida after seeing the Met's performance, and here, somewhat belatedly, is the other one.

The conductor, James Conlon, adopted speeds that, although relatively conventional, irritated me. His style involves accelerating and halting at various points, making the music swell and recede as the drama dictated to him. Although this approach seems to be considered nowadays as authentically Verdian, I think it's unfortunate. As I mentioned in my last post, Verdi has such a great rhythmic vitality and flow, and this quality is hindered by the approach exemplified by Conlon. The Rome recording conducted by Mehta, with Nilsson in the title role, has similar problems.

I think the approach is particularly problematic in the 2nd act. In the wonderfully tense scene between Aida and Amneris, as the latter toys with the former's emotions, Conlon had the music surging and halting as the two go back and forth and Aida's mood shifts. These emphases are entirely unnecessary, and hurt the overarching buildup to the incredible climactic moment when Amneris exclaims "Radames... vive!" Then in the triumphal second scene of the act, the ending after ending that Verdi throws on top of each other was separated by sharply varying speeds and lurching stops. When critics put a positive gloss on this approach, they call it "letting the music breathe" and "shaping the phrases."

Take, as contrast, the severely underrated recording conducted by Erich Leindorf on RCA (with Price, Domingo, Bumbry, and Milnes). The tension in the first scene is unrelenting, and when the unparalleled Grace Bumbry comes to that incredible climactic line, the music just explodes. (Bumbry, by the way, delivers one of those once-in-a-lifetime, stars-are-perfectly-aligned dynamo performance on that recording. It MUST be heard. It's the greatest possible performance of the greatest of mezzo roles.) And the second scene builds evenly to the grand finale. The recording, and Leinsdorf's approach, have been unjustly maligned. The speeds seem unconventional, but only because they are not extreme, while people have grown used to the extremes. I've heard several recordings, and Leinsdorf's is far and away my favorite, and not just because of the unbeatable cast.

Another similar contrast consisted in the last two runs of Otello given at the Met. First, Gergiev conducted a blazing fast performance, but one that had lots of acceleration and seemed frenzied without being exciting. Levine, on the other hand, had more moderate speeds, but his control is impeccable; as always, the inner voices of the score come through so clearly, but the rhythmic delights of the opera do as well. Despite being slower, Levine's performance was more exciting and rhythmically vital due to the tight control he exercised over the pacing. That control was even more crucial in the terrific performances of Falstaff this past fall. Levine is at his best in Verdi.


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