Having been safely sheltered in the suburbs for over a year, it was somewhat of a shock to note the changes around Arts Centre Melbourne for the opening night of Verdi’s Aida. There was the usual QR code to scan on entering the venue and there were no programs to purchase. Once again, we scanned a QR code to download the program using the Arts Centre free Wifi and our QR apps.
Modern technology was also a major part of Opera Australia’s production of Aida. It was 21st century technology meets ancient Egypt. The opera is visually stunning with ten floor-to-ceiling panels moving around the stage and “commenting” on the action taking place. The size of the panels was fabulous when the stage was full of people but tended to dwarf the soloists when only one or a few people were on stage. The panels also muffled the voices when the singers were not at the front. The only time that the screens were not visually effective was at the end when Radames and Aida are supposed to be buried alive. The stage was just too big to give the impression of the claustrophobia and horror of their deaths. Radames sings to his coat, imagining it to be Aida, which echoes the opening when Amneris, for no obvious reason, hugs what is probably a coat during the Prelude. Director, Davide Livermore, changed the ending in that Radames only imagines Aida to be in the tomb with him. When he dies she lays her hands over him and he jerkily rises from the dead and is led to the afterlife by her.
Speaking of jerking – the dancers worked very hard throughout the opera, but their jerky movements and heaving chests were quite distracting. I imagine their strange epileptic fits were supposed to represent the Oracle going into a trance. The dancers also enacted a stylised battle and fell down a lot. The partial nudity that we were warned to expect was tastefully done with a few silver G-strings on display and a lot of nipple covers. Large topless female nudes were projected on the screens.
But what of the singing, which is, after all, the essential definition of an opera? The role of Aida was sung by the American soprano Leah Crocetto. She has a powerful voice and uses it with great control and musicality. Her top notes were divine as was her control of tempi. She was the most convincing of the three main singers in conveying the emotions of her role. She was dignified but also heartbroken about the futility of her love for Radames and the defeat of her countrymen, including her father. Her performance of “Ritorna Vincitor” was emotional with a beautiful legato line, and her top note was like a cry of anguish that was both moving and expressive. Her plea to the gods was soft and beautifully controlled. Such control continued throughout the entire opera.
Amneris was sung by the Russian/French mezzosoprano Elena Gabouri. She has a strong voice, which carried over the orchestra and was fairly even throughout her range, although there was some chesty belting in a few places where the notes were very low and the orchestra very loud. Her acting was limited in the first two acts but became more believable towards the end of the opera. She was represented on the huge panels behind her by a huge menacing black panther – an interesting device to represent her anger and frustration – the panther later dissolving when she eventually realises that she loves Radames and would save him if she could. She was a voluptuous Egyptian Princess with many costume changes to represent her wealth and position.
Stefano La Colla, the Italian tenor who played Radames, was totally wooden throughout the opera apart from the very last scene where he finally used his hands to gesture and suddenly came alive. Until then he looked as though he had been told to stand still and let the panels do the expressing. In his first aria, “Celeste Aida”, he made a very tentative start and was not always in time with the orchestra. He didn’t quite manage all the top notes easily in this first aria, which is so cruelly placed right at the beginning of the opera with no time to warm up at all. His singing became more secure as the opera progressed and there were beautiful phrases of lush tenor quality to enjoy. Indeed, the audience gave him ample applause at the end. La Colla was not helped in portraying his role by the weird costume he wore – a sort of Chinese great-coat with unremarkable black shirt and trousers. He did not look like a Captain of the Guard.
Ramfis was sung by the Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov, who gave a commanding performance as the high priest. His beautiful voice was always consistent in quality throughout his whole range and he exuded authority and strength in his role. His singing was a highlight of the production.
The High Priestess was sung admirably by Jane Ede, and the messenger by tenor, Dean Bassett. The King was sung by Gennadi Dubinsky, who appeared in a giant chariot wearing a silver suit of armour. Another very strange combination of costume styles.
Amonasro, Aida’s father, was sung beautifully by Michael Honeyman. His acting was convincing but, again, hampered by his costume. The Ethiopians were dressed in grey with Amonasro showing his rank by wearing a grey denim jacket, replete with metal studs! It was a complete shock to the system to have viewed sumptuous “quasi-Egyptian” costumes and then be confronted with this type of clash of cultures. It looked as though the budget had run out.
The highlight of the opera for me was the beautiful singing of the Men’s Chorus. The quality of their sound was warm and full and really well controlled. They didn’t have to act at all – just stand still and concentrate on producing a lush warm sound – and they did. The Ladies Chorus also sang well in their scenes, although there were a few raggedy endings of phrases early in the opera.
The orchestra was conducted by Tahu Matheson and there were many times when the orchestral playing was sublime. The flutes were sinuous and clear. Stand outs were the oboe and bass clarinet solos. The brass was raucous, as they should be, and the strings were often ethereal and well controlled. At times the harpists had their work cut out to stay with the singers. My only reservation with regard to the conducting was that when there were fast endings to scenes the singers got behind as the tempo was too fast for them to catch their breath.
I sat four rows from the stage so did not get an overall picture of the panels plus singers as a whole. A Reserve is not necessarily the best place to sit for this production. People who sat further away said that the overall experience was mind blowing and they loved it.
But the overarching sentiment of the evening was “It’s good to be back!” – and so it was. If you want huge spectacle, amazing although confusing costumes and sets, wonderful music with well-known pieces, this is the opera for you. I would like to return, sit upstairs and just wallow in the whole milieu, rather than critically analysing the performance. This is the production to share with your friends who have never been to the opera before. They will come out wanting more. Just hope that technical glitches plaguing opening night, such as the initial absence of surtitles, will have been sorted out.
Jennifer Turner reviewed the opening night of Verdi’s “Aida” presented by Opera Australia at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on May 6, 2021.