Verdi Otello in Verona
Opera in the Verona Arena can no doubt be great theatre but it can also be very poor television: essentially, what is best in the Arena is worst on the box, and vice versa. Massive choruses moving across the huge stage-area filmed from a position in this vast expanse of antiquity tend to look like the midsummer manoeuvres of an ants’ nest in a natural history programme when viewed on the small screen. Conversely, a dialogue of what appear to be specks when viewed from afar against a background of night-sky and panoramic scenery may be intimate as conversation in a drawing-room if well filmed. Or, to come more specifically to the videos under review: most tourists who travel to Verona for the opera will have hoped to find Aida in repertoire, the piece de resistance being the Triumphal scene. In the video, the spectacle impresses only theoretically and with an effort of the imagination. By contrast, the Letter scene in Madama Butterfly, where only Butterfly and Sharpless are on stage and there is no large-scale movement at all, is one of the most affecting episodes in any of these films as seen at home. In the Arena whatever success it had will have been a matter of art triumphing over circumstance, for the place is as unsuitable as is the home television-set for the victory parade in Aida.
Madama Butterfly is the most intimate and least spectacular of the filmed operas in this series; it is also the film to which I myself would be most likely to return. Raina Kabaivanska seems at first an unlikely Butterfly. She is too tall and too old: the voice has lost its youthful purity and is not reliably steady. Yet this is a masterly performance and all the better for being seen at close range. “Un bel di”, for example, begins serenely, like a child reciting a lesson learnt by heart and repeated now for Suzuki, whom she addresses, looking at her directly as she questions “Chi sara?” and “Che dira?”. Then, with “un po’ per non morir”, the recitation becomes something else: her own vision takes control with a terrible urgency, a vision she can see as clearly as reality till it begins to fade in her eyes, and there is nothing there. Kabaivanska most touchingly lives the role throughout. Much of her singing is fine too (as in the thrilling cry of “m’ha scordata?” and the “Che tua madre” solo); but sound alone would have misrepresented the artistic achievement of a performance which needs to be seen, not from a seat in the vast arena but through the eye of the camera.
This is true of a few (very few) other individual performances – Maria Chiara’s Aida, Ingvar Wixell’s Scarpia and (most of all) Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s Desdemona. Beautifully sung and precious simply in sound-recording, this is also a characterization marked by skilful acting. Those who say she learns her roles parrot-fashion and sings without understanding should see this, and follow, for instance, her closely detailed reactions to Otello’s words in Act 3 or enter with her into the girl’s troubled state in Act 4. Again the video is valuable both in itself and as evidence: from sound alone it might be possible (though still wrong) to think ‘bland’ a defensible word; nobody would be likely to use it having seen the video.
Other fine performances here – Vladimir Atlantov’s Otello, Fiorenza Cossotto’s Amneris, Giorgio Zancanaro’s Count di Luna – are good to see as well as to hear; but there are also many – for instance, Nicola Martinucci in Aida and Turandot, Ghena Dimitrova in Turandot and Nabucco – where sight adds little or nothing of value. Raw or uneven tone quality can be shown up quite cruelly: Eva Marton a vocally rebarbative Tosca, Dimiter Petkov a wobbly Zaccaria, Cossotto a great singer markedly in decline by the 1985 Trovatore.
In sum, the series is satisfying neither as opera nor as film. Musically, the balance is a hit-and-miss proposition, and because of the size of the place most of the singers most of the time are concerned with getting their voices across rather than with any refinement of their art. As film, too much (for one thing) is underlit, with faces too dim or distant or turned away. A certain atmospheric charm may be found in the shots of the Arena and the light of a thousand or so candles among the audience. Each of the films begins outside earlier in the day, with people queuing and scene-shifters hammering nails or transporting the lion of Venice in cross-section. There are other incidental interests – the difference in response among singers to the applause, for instance (Kabaivanska looks out over the sea of applause at the end of “Un bel di” with the stricken face of Cio-Cio-San hoping for a ship in the distance, while Marton, after “Vissi d’arte”, freezes, then unbends, acknowledges gravely, then with some signs of pleasure, then with a broad smile but without rising from the kneeling position in which she has been singing – it is all rather absurd).
I recommend the Butterfly for Kabaivanska, the Otello for Te Kanawa and Atlantov, and – but more faintly – the Aida for Chiara and Cossotto. Which underlines the paradox: the special thing about opera in the Arena is the Arena itself, but, as to opera in the Arena on the box, what tells, moves and has value is the individual performance, and then only if the singer defies the Arena and sings with refinement and acts with subtlety.'