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Gentler note in 'Aida' speaks volumes

The Baltimore Sun

Aida, the operatic equivalent of a widescreen, adventure-romance film, owes a large part of its lasting popularity to big scenery and volume.

The second act Triumphal March, staged with or without battalions of supernumeraries and assorted zoological specimens to engage the eye, is the most obvious blockbuster element in a piece punctuated by rousing trumpets and choral outbursts. Not to mention opportunities for anything-you-can-sing-I-can-sing-louder competitions among the principals.

But Verdi also poured some of his subtlest music into Aida, and that's what I look forward to whenever I encounter the work on the stage or on disc. When Baltimore Opera Company opens its season Saturday night with a new production of Aida, I'll be waiting for those gentler moments, particularly a single note that occurs about 10 minutes into the score.

It's the B-flat at the end of Celeste Aida, the tenor aria for Radames, the Egyptian captain in love with Aida, an enslaved Ethiopian princess.

"Heavenly Aida," Radames sings, to one of the most famous melodies in all of opera, "divine form ... you are the queen of my thoughts, the splendor of my life. I want to place a royal crown on your brow and raise for you a throne near the sun."

This soliloquy provides a glimpse into the two sides of Radames - fearless warrior and tender lover. Verdi gives him a chance to belt out two heroic high B-flats before the last measures of each verse of the aria, but then asks for something different. The second of those loud B-flats is followed by a startling dynamic marking: pppp (double pianissimo) as Radames sings about the "throne near the sun."

The dynamics increase slightly as the melody heads toward its conclusion (the words remain the same), passing through ppp before the line rises from a repeated F to the concluding pianissimo B-flat.

Closing the aria sweetly, with delicately shimmering orchestration beneath the voice, is a telling way to convey how much Radames is under Aida's spell. Verdi adds another instruction for that ultimate B-flat: morendo, indicating that the note should fade away. Radames may be imagining the sun, but the music suggests the moon, stars, infinity.

There's just one little problem with all of this: It almost never sounds that way.

I can count on one finger the number of times I've heard the final B-flat of Celeste Aida sung truly pianissimo in an opera house. Recordings of a softly spun B-flat are rare, too. The few that I've found - including those that start loudly and then fade away - convince me that the less showy approach is ideal.

There's a good chance that we'll all hear an exception to the belt-it-out rule on Saturday when Antonello Palombi sings Radames for the Baltimore Opera.

Palombi routinely tries to produce what Verdi wrote - an example is available on the tenor's Web site (liricopera.com) and YouTube. And, a few weeks ago, singing Aida at the Seattle Opera, the tenor earned praise in the press for his "ravishingly floated B-flat" at the end of the Celeste Aida.

"Normally, I add something more," Palombi says. "I start pianissimo, then crescendo to mezzo-forte, then back to pianissimo. Of course, it's not easy."

(That technique is called messa di voce. Dropping the term at intermission could help you draw a crowd in the lobby.)

"This aria is a kind of dream, and I try to give it that sense," says Palombi, who made international news in 2006 saving a performance of Aida at Milan's La Scala after Roberto Alagna stormed offstage when his aria was booed.

"For everybody, Aida is really, really hard - for the tenor, the soprano, the mezzo, the baritone," says Andrea Licata, who will conduct the Baltimore production. "I remember a tenor who could sing [the demanding role of Calaf in Puccini's] Turandot easily, but would always be so nervous when he sang Aida."

Stanley Cornett, a seasoned tenor on the voice faculty at the Peabody Conservatory, suggests that there are reasons some singers would be nervous in Celeste Aida. "If you get your throat in the open position to sing the repeated F's, you don't want to let go of it when you go up for the B-flat," he says.

And trying to soften that last note could make the voice suddenly "sound constrictive, like going into another gear," Cornett says. "That's the danger of singing an isolated note like that - sounding like you're pulling away because you're scared you don't have the note."

Given the context and demands of the aria, Cornett isn't surprised that few tenors attempt the soft ending. "Not to question Verdi, but the words of the aria are strong, so I can understand why tenors sing it loudly," he says. "To leave the note with grace is the key. You need a little more air flow and a relaxed jaw to get a velvety color, to have it spinning 'like butta.' "

Celebrated tenor Franco Corelli was known to get exactly that effect, starting the B-flat at full volume, but then gradually filing it down. "Once you're up there, you can take a chance and make it sound softer," Cornett says.

Famed conductor Arturo Toscanini was known to try a compromise said to have been sanctioned by Verdi. The tenor first gets to sing to the balcony with an all-out B-flat, then repeats the aria's last words quietly on the B-flat an octave below.

"If you can't sing the pianissimo, it makes sense, to keep the sense of a dream," Palombi says. "But if you have the ability, you should do what Verdi wrote."

There's one more thing that might figure into a singer's interpretation of Celeste Aida. "The audience likes to hear the note loud," Licata says.

Licata, who is collaborating for the first time with Palombi ("His voice is really, really interesting"), has rarely conducted anyone who tried a pianissimo B-flat in Celeste Aida. "Many tenors, they pray just to hit that note at all," he says with a laugh.

For his part, Palombi takes the challenge in stride. "I know I have the note, so I don't think about it," he says. "Of course, you could always get a frog or something when the note comes. So after I sing it, I always think, 'Thank God it's gone.' "

I'd be happy to hear a pianissimo B-flat at the end of the aria go on forever. Same at the end of the whole opera, when Radames and Aida, entombed alive, are supposed to sing several high, soft B-flats while using up the remaining oxygen.

To me, the heart of Aida resides in such celestial notes, symbolizing the rapture that the lovers will only find in a higher plane of existence, somewhere beyond the harsh, vengeful world they have known.

If you go

Baltimore Opera Company's Aida opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and will also be performed Oct. 15, 17-19 at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $44-$141. Call 410-727-6000 or go to baltimoreopera.com.

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