The Teatro alla Scala in Milan, having cancelled all stage performances this autumn, presented Aida in concert form, with full choir and orchestra filling in the enormous stage (distancing the masked performers), sound-reflecting panels above the back of the stage to help projection, and the singers at the front. It was a performance nothing short of spectacular.

Riccardy Chailly conducts the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Riccardo Chailly’s direction seemed to enlighten the score with his insights, leading the orchestra in an intimate, lyrical reading which showed all the details of Verdi's sophisticated orchestration, from the orientalisms to the sensuousness of Amneris’ boudoir. The dramatic tension never failed, and exploded as a lightning bolt in thrilling stringendos. The orchestra and chorus (lead by Bruno Casoni) lived and breathed the score, showing a knowledge of every detail and a sense for Verdian interpretation hard to match anywhere else in the world. The La Scala chorus, albeit hindered by a very backwards location on the stage (raising their position higher would have helped) came out as perhaps the strongest performer of the evening.

The big event of the evening was the first modern performance of the original opening of Act 3, with a different score for the chorus “O tu che sei d’Osiride”, for the dialogue of Ramfis and Amneris and Aida’s recitative, and the cut of “O cieli azzurri”. The orchestral introduction resembles a Bachian chorale, and the chorus is a fugue a cappella, reminiscent of Palestrina. The La Scala chorus sounded magnificent, and it was an interesting alternate performance, even if it deprived us of Saioa Hernández’ “Cieli azzurri”.

Saioa Hernández
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Hernández was a fiery Aida, far from the eyelash-batting, seductive flirt of some interpretations. Her voice is big, grounded on a solid technique, and the unusual ease she had on high notes allowed her to shape and fill with nuances even the most technically challenging phrases. She managed to produce some ravishing pianissimos, some silvery, sparkling high Cs, but she gave her best in the second act encounter with Amneris. She found a rather uncommon commanding, authoritative voice, which gave new dramatic meaning to the confrontation of the two princesses.

Anita Rachvelishvili and Saioa Hernández
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Luckily, she had a more than appropriate match in Anita Rachvelishvili, whose Amneris was a force of nature. Her burnished, velvety mezzo was perfectly suited to the arrogant princess unable to process, or even understand, Radamès’ rejection. The sheer volume of her voice, the almost nonchalant ease even in her most difficult passages and her blood-chilling low register all added to the authority and command she exuded. Her “Anatema” was positively terrifying.

Francesco Meli seemed to be in a state of grace this evening. His Radamès was a troubled young man, who plays the hero but is fundamentally weak. He managed to navigate all the difficulties of the part, starting with a strong, convincing “Celeste Aida”, judiciously avoiding the pitfall of the high B flat in pianissimo as Verdi wrote. He seemed to do everything right, his precision in the ensembles remarkable, his high notes clear and powerful, his interpretation in moments of tenderness moving and delicate. This was rendered all the more impressive by the dry cough that tormented him constantly from the beginning of the third act. Despite this, every note was luminous, every phrase was shaped with intelligence, and his “Morir, sì pura e bella” was simply marvellous. A miracle.

Saioa Hernández and Amartuvshin Enkhbat
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Amonasro was Amartuvshin Enkhbat in his La Scala debut. He convinced with a pure Verdian baritone and a (surprisingly) Italianate sound supported by a solid technique. He restrained from the (alas, common) exaggerated screams in the duet with Aida – “Su dunque! Sorgete, egizie coorti!” – maintaining a perfect control of his beautiful voice. The two basses were Roberto Tagliavini and Jongmin Park. Tagliavini’s solid Verdian voice made for an authoritative but compassionate King, while Park was a commanding Ramfis, his projection remarkable even in the beautiful low notes.

The performance was a triumph. The performers and the management should rest assured that the feebleness of the applause was not due to scarce enthusiasm, but to the scarcity of the audience (due to pandemic restrictions) and to the legendary vastness of the theatre. Every heart was bursting with gratitude for La Scala’s display of artistic and organisational leadership.