Surprise! - a modern dress Aida
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/02/2010 - and October 6*, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, November 2, 5, 2010
Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
Sondra Radvanovsky*/Michele Capalbo (Aida), Rosario La Spina (Radames), Jill Grove (Amneris), Scott Hendricks (Amonasro), Phillip Ens (Ramfis), Alain Coulombe (The King of Egypt), Alfredo Portillo (A Messenger), Betty Wynne Allison (A Priestess)
Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus*/Derek Bate (Conductor)
Tim Albery (Director), Hildegard Bechtler (Set Designer), Jon Morrell (Costume Designer), Laïla Dialo (Choreographer), Thomas C. Hase (Lighting Designer)
It's been 25 years since the COC last presented Aida and now, to the dismay of many and the delight of a few, we have a modern-dress version that turns out to be more successful than one might expect. This is mainly due to the fact that the dramatic focus is on the central characters and their conflicted emotions.
Even though the opera is based on a scenario created by a noted Egyptologist (Auguste Mariette), we know that is not based on documentary evidence, but really more of a fantasy about ancient Egypt which basically provides an exotic locale for yet another operatic tale of love versus duty.
In this updated production there are no visual clues about modern Egypt or Ethiopia. The setting is a militarist government with functionaries in suits and soldiers in uniform. No specific country is identifiable. At times the look is faintly eastern block c.1970, at times reminiscent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq (we get a glimpse of the conquered country: it has desert and palm trees.) Aida is a dowdy office cleaner pushing a mop. When the imperious Amneris is being dressed in her quarters (Act II), we see her impressive collection of shoes and handbags, while her attendants are fashionista socialites sipping cocktails and frolicking to the music intended for Moorish slaves waving feathered fans.
The locale of the work’s second scene is a temple where soldiers particpate in a religious ceremony (invoking the god Ptha) before going off to war. In this production the scene seems to be a museum where ancient martial artifacts are kept in display cases. It morphs into a kind of nightclub when dancers (more like Vagas-style leggy chorines) remove the artifacts and distribute tham among the soldiers, some of whom strip and smear blood on their bodies. If this sounds downright weird - well, it is.
The triumphal scene is staged more as a triumphalist scene. The exultant populace single Aïda out for special taunting and she is cocooned withn the military banner, which displays an automatic rifle. During the ballet we see prisoners being executed (twice), then the fashionistas enter and desecrate the bodies. We see Radames shoot a wounded soldier. This scene departs most from the spirit of the music, with its hamfisted message tediously repeated. The lighting is effectively ominous at this point, showing the “Egyptians” as a facelss mob.
The Nile scene, normally one of the most evocative of locale in all opera, is set on the empty stage of what appears to be a tatty desert-themed nightclub. Fortunately one soon overlooks the tawdriness of the setting thanks to the dramatic sparks engendered by the confrontation between Aida and Amonasro. Even though no attempt is made to make Scott Hendricks look a generation older than Sondra Radvanovsky, their vehement, anguished acting and singing create the dramatic high point of the evening.
Musically this is a full-bodied Verdian treat. It is COC Music Director Johannes Debus’s first Aida and it is as taut and well-paced as one could wish. Orchestra and chorus are up to their usual high standard.
Sondra Radvanovsky, in her company and role debut, fills every nook and cranny of the theatre with her full, ripe voice. Conductor Debus indulges her a degree in O patria mia; the result is a show-stopper. (We love those!) By the way, she lives in one of Toronto’s hilly exurbs and has expressed a desire to work close to home; let’s hope COC management brings her back soon and often.
Australian tenor Rosario La Spina is an excellent match for Radvanovsky, with a sizeable and youthful Mediterranean tone. He overstates a couple of moments in Celeste Aida, his notoriously difficult entrance aria. Just letting it flow would be fine. The always longed-for diminuendo was missing at the end, alas - but it usually is.
Jill Grove has a gutsy, compelling alto-esque voice. She is thrilling in Amneris’s big scene when she vents her anguish during Radames’s off-stage trial, then curses those who have condemned him. This scene is lit with chilling fluorescent lights, and the Stasi-style interrogators don leather gloves before entering the trial chamber.
The tomb scene was less visually jarring than the others; there’s not much you can do to update a cavernous crypt. The one disappointment in this scene is that, as Aida and Radames bid farewell to life, they are on opposite sides of the stage, with the mournful Amneris high above. I imagine this was done to give visual stress to the love triangle of which we are well aware already.
Scott Hendricks makes the absolute most of what is a rather brief lead role. It’s his third major Verdi role with the company - let’s hope he returns.
Phillip Ens (as Ramfis - a very modern high priest in a well-tailored suit) returns for yet another Verdi heavy for which his well-oiled voice is so apropo. Alain Coulombe does a fine job as the King as CEO and generalissimo draped in gold braid.
Alfredo Portilla is startlingtly good in the brief role of the Messenger. He is also understudy for Radames and I’ll bet he’s right decent in that role. Betty Wynne Allison, a recent alumna of the company’s Ensemble Studio, sounds just right as the Priestess.
I’ve seen productions where the director’s approach was so whimsical and irelevant that one had no idea what the point was. This was not one of those. However I can’t really say that it made me reconsider Aida in a whole new light. This highly interpretive approach is supposed to be intellectually provoking and I certainly did find myself pondering directorial choices. Of course one has to overlook references to Egitto and Etiopi, not to mention slavery. Mostly, though, its attempt to be topical means it hammers home points that are already obvious.