Aida…spectacular and phenomenal: an opera review by Victor Grynberg

July 22, 2018 by Victor Grynberg
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The reader may think this headline refers to the much-anticipated digital set for this new production of Verdi’s great opera by Opera Australia.

Victor Grynberg

In fact I would like to use the headline to describe the voice of American soprano Amber Watson as the ill-fated Aida. A true (Richard ) Wagnerian singer, Miss Wagner made her successful debut with OA in 2016 as Sieglinde in Die Walkure, but in proof of the fine judgement of OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, she sang Aida with one of the strongest, yet beautiful voices ever heard at the opera theatre. With dramatic intensity, yet always a beautiful sound , she seamlessly phrased her notes. Stunning .

Of course, the digital set had aroused everyone’s anticipation. 10 mega screens a couple of metres wide and full stage height they were used far more imaginatively than one could have thought. The screens moved ,sometimes merging together with images so crisp and clear. To keep some elements of surprise I won’t describe all the images portrayed but nobody present at opening night will likely forget the snakes slithering on the screens or the serpent’s head. Or the panther so menacing behind  Amneris in certain scenes.

In this World Cup period, where Italy failed to even qualify, we ended up with an Italian World Cup team in this production.

The digital effects were created by Paolo Gep and his D-Wok team. Man of the match contender. I did have one reservation however. In the first half, when we didn’t want to miss a thing there was a sensory overload wanting to focus on the action and great singers, reading the surtitles and not wanting to miss  taking in  anything happening on the screens. In comparison the second half was much calmer. This may not be the future of all operas, but certainly this is an important new technique to be used when appropriate and when the team creating it are as clever as this lot.

Amber Wagner as Aida, Elena Gabouri as Amneris, Roberto Scandiuzzi as Ramfis, Jud Arthur as The King, Riccardo Massi as Radamès, the Opera Australia Chorus and Dancers in Opera Australia’s 2018 production of Aida at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo Credit: Prudence Upton

There is speculation that sometime in the future there will be digital costumes, but we’re not there yet. So it’s important to acknowledge the brilliant costuming by Gianluca Falaschi.  The rich, opulent Egyptian ones, the drab, meaningful ones of the Ethiopian prisoners. His first commission for OA. Hopefully not his last.

Notwithstanding the digital screens , often used to emphasise the story rather than just being a set replacement, there needed to be an imaginative set. Again a company making their OA debut was Gio Forma, whose work encompasses much in design rather than just opera. I think this enabled them to give freshness and appropriate simplicity at times to their sets.

Riccardo Massi as Radamès and Amber Wagner as Aida in Opera Australia’s 2018 production of Aida at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo Credit: Prudence Upton

Italy’s greatest ever operatic composer Giuseppe Verdi had received a commission to write an Egyptian themed opera for the opening of the Khedivian Opera House in Cairo in 1871. The Khedive (Viceroy) wanted to celebrate the Opening of the Suez Canal and all things Egyptian . Little could he imagine that this opera would become one of the greatest hits of all Grand Operas. Though famous over the years for elephants and other gimmicks the strength of the work really relies on the quality of Verdi’s music and the singers employed to perform. Radames is the Egyptian captain caught in a love triangle between Aida the servant (but secretly the daughter of defeated Ethiopian King Amonasro) and  Amneris, the daughter of the King of Egypt.

Strikingly handsome with a strong tenor voice Radames was sung by Riccardo Massi, making a very welcome return to Australia. A perfect performance. The opera has many beautiful arias (Celeste Aida the biggest hit ) and of course the triumphal Chorus. But for me always it’s the 13 minute duet  just before their deaths at the end , sung by Aida and Radames. I love this music so greatly I only want to hear top singers doing it. As everyone was fortunate to  hear on the night.

Amneris (there’s always at least one villain) is sung to perfection by Russian Mezzo Elena Gabouri. I may be repeating myself, but when I see three imports doing such a magnificent job for OA, I well justify the non-use of locals. Fortunately in this long season of Aida all three roles will be sung later  (and no doubt very well  ) by local favourites.

There was strong support for the three leads from Warwick Fyfe as Amonasro (Aida’s father , the Ethiopian King who is now a prisoner), Roberto Scandiuzzi as a High Priest and Jud Arthur , fully clad from head to toe in extremely striking Egyptian mask and costume .

Not to be outdone , once more we had  a very well-rehearsed and melodic choir. Huge in number, crowded onto the too-small stage, but lending excellent support vocally and physically to the production. It’s good to see Chorus Master Anthony Hunt getting well deserved special applause at the end.

Riccardo Massi as Radamès, Roberto Scandiuzzi as Ramfis and Elena Gabouri as Amneris in Opera Australia’s 2018 production of Aida at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo Credit: Prudence Upton

Italian director Davide Livermore (no relation to our beloved Reg) was captain of this World Cup team. Remarkably he was also choreographer. With ten outstanding dancers doing steps and routines more imaginative than I have ever seen anywhere on Opera stages this part of the production made the night worthwhile just by itself. As the Director Livermore pulled all the pieces together seamlessly. Whether it was the excellent lighting by veteran Australian designer John Rayment or the perfect balance of movement between the large cast we had it all. No doubt OA will be keen to see him return in the future.

Finally the very youthful Italian conductor Andrea Battistoni was the enthusiastic leader of the excellent Opera Australia orchestra. With the enlarged pit, their playing of the magnificent Verdi score just added to an unforgettable night.

No wonder there was such rousing applause and a full, long-lasting standing ovation at the end. Not to be missed. Even if you’ve never been to an opera before.

5 Stars

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