Sunday 17 November 2013

Verdi - Aida

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Opéra National de Paris, 2013

Philippe Jordan, Olivier Py, Carlo Cigni, Elena Bocharova, Lucrezia Garcia, Robert Dean Smith, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Sergey Murzaev, Oleksiy Palchykov, Elodie Hache

Opéra Bastille - 6 November 2013

There's definitely something wrong when you come out of a performance of Verdi's Aida feeling somewhat underwhelmed by it all.  In the case of this work bigger does often equate with better. You wouldn't think that there was much danger of the production design of Olivier Py's Aida for the Paris Opera ever being described as underwelming. Quite the reverse. Pierre-André Weitz's designs filled the huge expanse of the Bastille stage from front to back and even made extensive use of the full height of the stage. More than just grand and epic, the production has a touch of Midas about it, with solid gold temples, columns and objects making an impressive and imposing set. Yet underwhelming it was, a "bling" Aida with no heart of gold.

There was to this end perhaps one crucial thing missing from this production of Aida. Egypt. Attempting to avoid the exotic mannerisms and trappings of the work as a spectacle of accumulated clichés is admirable. Setting it in Verdi's period is not necessarily a bad idea either, since the composer was undoubtedly influenced more by the experiences of his own time than the history of Ancient Egypt, but by looking realistically at the context of Aida the director misses the point of the work entirely. For Olivier Py, it's all about the abuse of political and religious power, it's a diatribe against colonialism and oppression and, indeed most certainly, the images presented here successfully express the striving for enormous power and wealth that crushes finer human sentiments.

Unfortunately, those human sentiments are really what lie at the heart of the work and they aren't given the same consideration in Py's production. Aida is first and foremost a human story, a love story, a tragedy. The rest is just background. The horror of war, the injustice of a cruel regime is certainly there, but it shouldn't dominate. It's hard to compete with all those processions, the spectacle and the choral glorification of nationalistic pride and hatred for the enemy, but the real challenge of staging Aida is to use all that as a contrast to the love story at the heart of the work, and that is indeed what makes Aida great.

It might have helped if you could identify then who exactly was the enemy in this production. An Italian flag is waved at the start during the overture by a defiant rebel who is kicked and beaten by soldiers who are dressed in the more modern military aspect of the French forces in Algeria who wave an Austrian flag. The pomp and ceremony of the Triumphal March is undercut with misplaced Holocaust imagery with the defeated Ethiopians looking like Jewish refugees. The Ku Klux Klan perform the interrogation of Radamès by a burning cross, while the High Priests who pronounce his sentence clearly belong to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. There's everything here except Egypt, which ironically might actually be more topical considering world current events.  

Admittedly, the set design is hugely impressive. It's a masterpiece of construction with parts revolving and sliding into place, forming temples, altars and raised columns. Everything, even a tank that is wheeled on, looks made of solid gold, attesting to the sense of wealth being aligned with oppression. As you would expect, the spectacle is most pronounced during the Triumphal March, but there is an almost total disconnect between the staging and the actual music that doesn't serve the work well nor effectively get to the heart of sentiments at play. The huge processions are reduced here to a couple performing a ballet, while the whole stage rises to reveal three piles of naked bodies taken from a gas chamber. The whole thing is a mess, leaving the viewer to untangle all the references to colonialism and oppression that just get in the way of the real heart of the love-triangle nature of the story.

The singing at least was very good, but the characters were unfortunately somewhat overwhelmed by the context of the production. Lucrezia Garcia was an exceptionally good Aida in some parts but a little shaky in others, struggling to keep up on occasion with the pace of Philippe Jordan's conducting. Verdi isn't where Robert Dean Smith can be heard at his best, but he was a good Radamès, only being defeated by the scale and emphasis of the production itself. Aida can often stand or fall on the strength of a good Amneris, but Elena Bocharova was unable to make the necessary impact here. Sergey Murzaev's Amonasro give the best performance of the evening - cool, regal and authoritative - but Roberto Scandiuzzi's High Priest and Carlo Cigni's King also gave solid performances. There are evidently few problems casting for voices at the lower-end of Verdi roles.

If the production and performances were overall underwhelming, there was at least some compensation in the punchy musical performance of Verdi's score by the massed orchestra of the Paris Opera under the complete control of Philippe Jordan. The chorus too brought all the necessary impact in all the right places, but neither was well-served by the production design. If anything it just confirmed that you can't mess around with Aida. It may seem direct and full of grand, epic gestures, but there is a delicate equilibrium that needs to be maintained through the balance of the staging and the music. Olivier Py's production doesn't even come close.