Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
July 18, 2018
There has been a great deal of excitement surrounding the opening of this new Opera Australia production of Verdi’s Aida, given the huge investment in technology used to stage it. Directed and choreographed by Italy’s Davide Livermore, the set is almost exclusively all-digital – and many of the effects are thrilling.
There is also some spectacular singing. But both the staging and the vocals are so full-force at times that the emotion at the heart of the opera becomes overwhelmed.
Aida. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Livermore, who is known for his work with projection, has collaborated here with Giò Forma (set design) and D-Wok (video design). The production uses 10 large LED screens which can move and rotate around the stage. Onto these are screened a range of dynamic, pristine images such as slithering gold snakes, a horseman riding through the desert, a red stormy sky, ancient male gods in nothing but gold G-strings, and patterned hieroglyphics.
Not that it is entirely digital. There are various props from chairs to a platform and the king’s podium but the technology is certainly to the fore. With dramatic lighting by John Rayment, the digital staging allows for fluid scene changes, insights into the character’s minds and other spectacular effects. Some of it seems a bit obvious – the black panther (which later bears its fangs) representing the jealous Amneris, for example. But overall it is impressive, with plenty of applause for the staging from the opening night audience.
Elena Gabouri and Amber Wagner. Photograph © Prudence Upton
The costuming by Gianluca Falaschi takes traditional Egyptian imagery and gives it a stylised contemporary twist, with all kinds of maverick touches like the eccentric helmets worn by the soldiers. It has a kind of fantasy feel. In scenes at the King’s palace, however, there is such an over-the-top profusion of gold, silver and blinged-up outfits that it becomes positively overwhelming. You reach interval feeling exhausted by the visual onslaught.
Meanwhile, the costumes for the Ethiopians, who appear in distressed, contemporary blue trousers and tops, seem to come from a completely different era. It’s an odd contrast.
Some of the most powerful and surprising moments in the production come from Livermore’s choreography. He has the dancers acting as if possessed by the goddess Isis in the Temple when Radamès is named as the leader of the Egyptian army, which is striking and speaks about the world of ritual surrounding the characters. And for the triumphal march (which has trumpet players in the circle boxes on the sides of the stage) instead of a parade of animals and troops, Livermore has the dancers in a compelling routine that references the savagery of battle, as well as sexuality and again ritual. However, when Livermore involves the chorus and lead characters in choreographed gestures, it feels awkward, verging on naff, despite the commitment of the performers.
The dancers in Aida. Photograph © Prudence Upton
American soprano Amber Wagner makes her debut as Aida, a slave girl (secretly an Ethiopian princess) working as a handmaiden for the Egyptian princess Amneris. Both Aida and Amneris are in love with Egyptian warrior Radamès, who only has eyes for Aida. Wagner played Sieglinde for OA in the 2016 Ring Cycle in Melbourne and gave a superb performance that was as convincing dramatically as it was vocally. As Aida, she shows the extraordinary power of her voice from a rich, potent lower register to radiant top notes. Her arias, particularly O patria mia (Oh, my dear country) in Act 3, got a huge response from the audience. She certainly has a spectacular instrument, but there was little dramatic light and shade in her singing. Opportunities that cried out for some gentler pianissimo were largely by-passed, and as a result the arias didn’t have the emotional impact that they could have.
Dramatically it feels as if she hasn’t quite got the character of Aida into her bones yet, and there was little chemistry with Italian tenor Riccardo Massi, who is a hugely charismatic, and moving, Radamès.
Elena Gabouri (up top), Amber Wagner and Riccardo Massi. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Livermore makes it very plain at the start of the opera, with a large physical triangle appearing (on top of which Amneris later makes an appearance), that the love triangle is central to the opera. As is frequently remarked, aside from the big chorus numbers and triumphal march, Aida has many intimate scenes between Aida, Radamès and Amneris. But the emotion powering that love triangle doesn’t quite hit home here.
French-Russian mezzo soprano Elena Gabouri who plays Amneris has a stunning voice with dramatic lower notes and an exciting top, but she too sings with consistently full force, and her acting is over-wrought at times.
Massi, who has played Radamès at a number of opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera, gives a powerful portrayal of Radamès, finding all the emotional conflicts within him, and singing with a gorgeous, smooth, dark-coloured lyricism. In some of the bigger scenes with the chorus, and Wagner and Gabouri at their most powerful, he doesn’t always cut through, but other than that he gives a beautiful performance and is incredibly moving in the tomb scene – even though it seems odd that as Radamès and Aida face death together at the end, they don’t touch or look at each other; instead Massi is on the ground and Wagner stands still behind him.
Riccardo Massi and Amber Wagner. Photograph © Amber Wagner
There are also strong performances from Warwick Fyfe as Amonsaro, Roberto Scandiuzzi as the High Priest Ramfis, and Jud Arthur as the King of Egypt (clad head to toe in armour). The chorus is also excellent, with the men raising the hairs on the back of the neck with some of their low, quiet, luscious singing.
The orchestra, meanwhile, is superb under the baton of young Italian conductor Andrea Battistoni. So, there is much to enjoy in the production with its dynamic, inventive, high-tech staging and dazzling singing. Some deeper characterisation and emotion would fire it even more. Still, most of the opening night audience seemed bowled away by it, giving it a roaring response and a standing ovation.
Aida plays in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until August 31