Daniel Barenboim´s incredible musical raid ended in glory commanding the Milan La Scala forces in a double Verdi programme. No doubt, the event of the year. At the Colón, of course. It was the end result of long planning and difficult financing, and there was a darker side; but the artistic endeavor was triumphant by any standards, and that´s the paramount conclusion.
In three consecutive days two Verdi masterpieces of about the same period: on Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening, "Aida"; on Monday evening, the Requiem Mass. In both cases, the full forces of the great Milanese opera house: the magnificent Orchestra and the nonpareil Choir. And two imported casts with some very valuable artists never heard here.
To keep the already very high costs more manageable, "Aida" was offered in a concert version. Its choice was symbolic: this opera opened the new Colón in 1908, and was supposed to be put on stage for the (failed) reinauguration in 2008. This was the best "Aida" I´ve ever heard as far as the choir and orchestra are concerned, and the cast was substantial, if not ideal. And the lack of staging allowed one to concentrate on the musical values; as I had the full score with me, it was a wonderfully revealing experience, finding so many details that over the years I hadn´t detected (that´s the mystery of the great scores: there´s always something new in them).
I have long been aware of Barenboim´s enormous talent, but I hadn´t thought of him as a Verdian; well, he showed himself a master of that style, with an urgent dramatic sense, an extreme sensibility to phrasing and dynamics, an intelligent support of the singers and an unfailing command. Both in "Aida" and the Requiem his readings are among the very best I´ve heard, live or in records.
But if Barenboim had such a success it was because La Scala´s orchestra and choir are exceptional in professionalism and intensity, without ever losing control. As they have gone through many vicissitudes in recent years, and the crisis continues, it is admirable that artistic quality is still the rule for these true artists. The fabulous precision of the trumpets in the famous March of "Aida" or in the "Tuba mirum" of the Requiem (with spatial placing giving added drama to stunning effect), the beautiful tone of the oboe, the marvelously compact brass, the silky strings in "pianissimo", are memories to be cherished. And as to the choir, they produced their own wonders: a range of sound that went from the softest to the loudest without loss of quality, such exact intonation that after long "a cappella" passages there was no discrepancy when the orchestra joined in, and a coloring of tone that gave us joyful or menacing sounds at will.
The cast of "Aida" brought us several worthwhile debuts, in a Buenos Aires that is in sore need of such visits. The soloists were placed in front of the choir. Aida was the Ukrainian Oksana Dyka, an ample voice with a touch of harshness but plenty of stamina. Mezzosoprano Ekaterina Gubanova, briefly heard in Beethoven´s "Choral" Symphony, was uneven as Amneris, for her timbre isn´t ingratiating and her lows are weak, but she has a true dramatic temperament and she rose to the challenge of her great Fourth Act scene with impressive impetus. Tenor Salvatore Licitra is quite famous and his arrival aroused much expectation; his Radames improved gradually after a rather disappointing First Act, and by the time he got to the great Duo with Aida in the Third Act his beautiful, resonant voice had convinced the listeners; and he was able to sing the last Duo with soft ravishing sounds. The Oriental bass Kwangchul Youn displayed a deep mahogany voice as Ramfis, used with taste. Andrzej Dobber, who had sung in the "Choral" Symphony, was a strongly dramatic Amonasro, with a true Verdian voice. Carlo Cigni sang a good King, and Antonello Ceron (Messenger) and Sae Kyung Rim (Priestess) did well.
The Requiem brought us a valuable quartet of solo singers. Apart from an isolated vocal accident, Youn again sang nobly. Sonia Galassi was the very professional mezzosoprano, her timbre not quite as velvety as the part needs. The two best members were the soprano Marina Poplavskaya, also heard in Beethoven´s Ninth, singing in the Requiem with lovely soft tones and perfect style, and the very able lyric tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who is having a promising career and showed an exquisite command of sweet but never cloying phrasing.
And now the down side. The visit was in great danger of not happening, after numerous strikes provoked by Berlusconi´s heavy cuts on subsidies to opera houses, and it would seem that Barenboim, La Scala´s Music Director, threatened to resign if they decided to be absent from our city. In a joint press conference of members of La Scala and the Colón, both delegates considered that the troubles of these opera houses come from a mercantile view of art, as the traditional concept of the State´s obligation to invest in culture seems to be relegated by purely commercial views. But they finally came, only the second full visit by a great European opera house in the last half century; the other, Saint Petersburg´s Kirov in 1998, was even fuller, with stage performances of two Mussorgsky operas.
For Buenos Aires Herald