Aida, by Verdi, conducted by James Levine
Suggested by Mik Parkin
Opera is silly.
There’s nothing wrong with silly, of course. Almost everything is silly, if you think about it. People kicking an orb around a field toward big nets, people plucking the hair from their eyebrows and then drawing them back on again, people keeping small animals in their house and picking up the resultant faeces in tiny plastic bags… all the best things are silly. Silly is what makes life fun.
Opera, in which mannered singers warble in Italian over orchestral scores that rise and fall to the beat of storied emotion, while a gathered crown pomped in rich clothing watch on through tiny binoculars, is a foreign country to me, despite my broad theatrical knowledge. Never spent a night at the opera, nor listened to an operatic score in its entirety. But every day’s a school day, so I approached this with an open mind.
My verdict? The music is lovely, but the medium is baffling.
I think operatic recordings are for people who are, well, fans of the opera. I realise this sounds obvious, but it bears consideration. Just like listening to the soundtrack to Wicked, or The Book of Mormon, can be entertaining at face value, a listener is bound to connect far better with the music if they’ve watched the musical beforehand. There’s comfort in context. Listening to Aida with no prior knowledge of the story, without the visual prop of theatrics, without seeing the intrigue and heartbreak and ceremony unfold before their eyes, means there’s a basic disconnect that’s difficult to overcome. The recordings are for viewers of the opera to relive their experience, rather than for newcomers to break into the genre.
That said, the music is beautiful, if you’re prepared to make concessions to the medium. The score ebbs and flows from the tiniest of whispers to the headiest of crescendos, with all the rumpty-tumpty and faddle-de-daddle-de-dee you’d expect in between. The singing is, well, operatic. If I’m honest, while I think it’s technically proficient, I’m unsure it’s actually good, or if that quality is an informed attribute. People say it’s good, so it must be good, in true Emperor’s New Clothes fashion. The singing is loud, and drenched in modulating vibrato that could seem almost comical out of context. An Opera Singer is definitely an Opera Singer, just as a Death Metal Singer is a Death Metal Singer, or a Mongolian Throat Singer is a Mongolian Throat Singer. All are good at what they do, but what they do is very specific.
Did I enjoy this? I guess. It was, in the words of Bill and Ted, most tranquil. At two-and-a-half hours long, it felt a bit much, without the abovementioned context to keep me enthralled. I particularly enjoyed some of the louder parts, such as the end of Act 3 (Traditor! … La mia rival!). I also smiled when I recognised a few famous refrains, but I guess that’s more to do with a nostalgia surrounding the advertisements which the music underscored back in the day, or the fact that a lot of it reminded me of other media that uses orchestral scores, such as classic Disney films or Tom and Jerry cartoons.
I’m going to give this 4/10, as I’m pretty meh about the whole thing. But I do feel fraudulent, as if I wandered into the venue by accident. Like those people who hate Shakespeare and say it’s all nonsense, perhaps I just need a good teacher to show me how wrong I can be.