Tuesday 30 September 2014

Verdi - Aida (Verona 2013 - Blu-ray)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Arena di Verona, 2013

Omer Meir Wellber, Carlus Padrissa, Àlex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus, Hui He, Fabio Sartori, Giovanna Casolla, Roberto Tagliavini, Ambroglio Maestri, Adrian Sampetrean, Carlo Bosi, Elena Rossi

Bel Air - Blu-ray

You don't often see a minimally dressed stage for a production of Aida, and you certainly won't be accustomed to see it at a production in the open air Arena di Verona, where Franco Zeffirelli's vast, flamboyant and extravagant staging is normally the house production. Minimalism isn't something you associate either with La Fura dels Baus, but when the camera sweeps over the walls of the ancient Roman arena, there's literally nothing on the stage but two narrow crane scaffolds. In the year when Verona celebrated Verdi's masterpiece with two productions, one a recreation of the original production and one experimental, it would be a surprise if the Catalan team didn't rise to the challenge of the occasion in this venue.

There may be something to be said for taking the focus away from the spectacle and giving more attention to the actual human dilemma in Aida, but if there is, I haven't seen it. The godfather of theatrical minimalism Robert Wilson didn't make a convincing case for it, so it may well be that Verdi's grand conception and the music he writes for Aida does indeed demand big gestures. And an audience expects to be treated to a spectacle in Aida. La Fura dels Baus therefore take a bit of a risk with their approach, but one of their strengths is indeed finding the right scale for a work and the site-specific environment that it is staged in. Their Aida isn't actually minimalist, it just takes advantage of the natural environment. Short of putting on the work beside the Pyramids in Egypt, there's hardly a more suitably ancient setting for Aida than the Roman amphitheatre in Verona.

Nor, despite initial appearances, is the stage entirely bare for the whole performance. Just before the overture, a few extras dressed as old-style archaeologists from the British Museum use local workers to reassemble part of an old temple wall, the implication presumably being that we are going to build up a view of an ancient past. The stage does indeed start to accumulate props as the opera progresses, building up a concept that might not entirely be comprehensible and might take some fantastical leaps of imagination, but it does in a way reflect the pace and the deepening emotional and dramatic building of the drama. In terms of how this culminates in Aida's famous conclusion, there's now a fully-fledged technologically-elaborate La Fura dels Baus set that hits the dramatic high-point with all the force that an audience expects of this work.

For the earlier part of the production then just as the sun is setting, Padrissa and Ollé allow the location to do most of the work for them. The ballets and processions all involve large numbers of supernumeraries walking through the audience with lighted football-sized globes and lining up in the upper tiers at the back of the amphitheatre. It's simple but effective. Things get a little more elaborate (and confusing) when we come to the Triumphal March, which involves an acrobat hanging on a cable (but not singers in this Fura production for a change), with mechanical elephants and camels marched across the stage, as well as troops in scarab buggies and a forklift truck carrying reflective silver cubes. The impression it gives is of a stylised ancient Egypt in the costume design and make-up, but almost a science-fiction version of it.

Almost without noticing it however, the stage gradually accumulates and transforms. Large inflatable Dali-like soft shapes arise in the background, which when lit and projected upon, give a vague impression of sand dunes. The silver cubes meanwhile are assembled into a large concave cross, which gradually descends at the end of the opera to enclose Aida and Radamès in their tomb. Elsewhere, the set designers are able to recreate a stylised Nile riverbank for Act III, complete with water, plastic-backed crocodiles, and waving palm fronds made of the same cables that are even used to create a futuristic dress for Aida. On paper it sounds like a terrible way to stage Aida. There's no attempt to make any commentary on war, imperialism or nationalism in the concept, but it proves nonetheless to be remarkably effective both as a spectacle and as support for the love drama.

As such, the production design doesn't overwhelm the human characters at the heart of Aida, nor does it overwhelm the performers. Thankfully, the singing is also strong enough for there never be any danger of that happening. Hui He is even stronger in the role of Aida here than in the previous version of the role I've heard her sing (Maggio Musicale Fiorentino). Her voice is fuller here (at the cost perhaps of a little clarity of diction), with a soft legato that reaches those high-notes much more smoothly. I didn't see much of an emotional connection to the character in her performance, but it's sung well and clearly gets out there to the arena audience. Fabio Sartori's voice is also big enough if not terribly lyrical and his notes stray a little, but he's just about good enough for Radamès. I most enjoyed Giovanna Casolla's Amneris. She has a firm, commanding voice for the most part and manages to be suitably formidable while demonstrating a human side.

The open-air nature of the Arena di Verona doesn't give the best acoustics to judge the performance of the orchestra, but Omer Meir Wellber conducts the work well through all its dramatic points and show pieces. The visual and audio qualities of the video recording are also restricted somewhat by the venue, which means that the Blu-ray isn't always as clear as it might be as it tries to cope with the changing light conditions. An attempt to capture the full impact of a large-scale La Fura dels Baus production like this is also difficult, but the filming does reasonably well. The Blu-ray is BD25, region-free, with subtitles in Italian, German, French, English and Spanish.