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Opera: Aida all’ Americana

2 minute read

With a fat $150,000 to spend on La Scala’s new production of Aïda, Director Franco Zeffirelli soared off into Cinerama dreams of Oriental glory. Unabashed by what his fine Italian hand had done to the recent Broadway flop, The Lady of the Camellias, he went into positive paroxysms of production. And when the curtain rose on each new scene of his masterpiece, the astonished audience forgot the forlorn presence of Soprano Leontyne Price and Tenor Carlo Bergonzi to shout “Stupendo! Bravo, Franco!”

In his papier-mache Egypt, Zeffirelli had scattered Sphynxes like sugar cubes; amid palm trees, columns, temples and 200-foot-high idols, he had corralled a cast of 600 singers and dancers and ten Berber horses. There were half-naked belly dancers, Nubian slaves, blue-faced soldiers, ballet dancers painted green from head to toe. And when Radames made his second-act victory procession, he came on at the head of 200 soldiers and 100 Ethiopian slaves. In an ardent effort to recreate the splendor of Aïda’s 1871 debut in Cairo (in celebration of the recent opening of the Suez Canal), Zeffirelli chose Second Empire France and Epic Hollywood as his cultural guides. “I have tried to give the public the best that Cecil B. De Mille could offer,” he said, “but in good taste.”

The critics, however, understood his idiom perfectly. “Aïda all’ Americana” (Aïda American style), said La Notte, “everything bigger and better than anybody else’s.” Only the singers noticed that the reviews barely mentioned them at all. “I looked like my grandmother in that ancient costume,” said Tenor Bergonzi, “but I don’t mind if the directors get the glory today. Opera cannot go on without singers, but it can manage quite well without directors.”

The Italian opera box office offers something of a demurrer. The biggest crowds today come to see the costliest productions; about the only singers in the country who can fill a theater by their names alone any more are Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano. And Di Stefano feels the wind blowing against him. “If music cannot get people into the theater any more,” says he, “it’s time for us to pack up. If the public goes to La Scala to see how many bananas are hanging on a wall on the stage and not to hear the singers,

I really pity us poor Italians.”

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