Giuseppe Verdi - Aida
La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017
Alain Altinoglu, Stathis Livathinos, Adina Aaron, Andrea Carè, Nora Gubisch, Dimitris Tiliakos, Giacomo Prestia, Enrico Iori, Tamara Banjesevic, Julian Hubbard
ARTE Concert - June 2017
What is the point of Aida? Well obviously it started out as an attempt to bring Verdi out of retirement with the commission of writing a new work for the grand occasion of the new opera house in Cairo, and while the work was never completed for the occasion, it is nonetheless full of nationalistic sentiments and regional colour with grand marches and ceremonial processions. You can't commemorate that occasion every time the opera is produced, so obviously Aida must have something else worth celebrating since it remains one of the best-known and most frequently performed of Verdi operas.
Unfortunately, most directors miss the point of Aida or at least allow it to be submerged in the crowd-pleasing ceremonial aspects of the Grand Opéra spectacle and the bombastic arrangements of its Arabic melodies. Some have tried to be a little more adventurous with the work, looking more deeply at the relevance of its themes and seeking to find another way to bring them to the surface, but few are entirely successful at meeting not unreasonable audience expectations. That however is not going to deter a progressive opera company like La Monnaie from attempting to do something fresh and original with Aida.
So what is the point of Aida at La Monnaie? Aside from the familiar Verdi themes of father/daughter relationships and the conflict between love and duty, the opera is primarily concerned with power and oppression. It's about the crushing of human feelings, human love and one's own better nature in favour of a cause (war in this case) that is determined by rulers and informed by the will of the gods. It's about those who believe that they have authority and wisdom on their side but who are in reality all too human in their failings and weaknesses, and as a consequence are all the more capable of grave misjudgements considering the power they wield.
So tell me if Aida has a point in this day and age...
Having accepted that there is very much a point to Aida, the question then is how best to put that across on stage with the right emphasis that doesn't actually glorify power, war and oppression, but at the same time still retain something of the spectacle and the pure operatic qualities of Aida. You can try to introduce contemporary elements like Olivier Py's Paris production, but that tends to come over as heavy-handed and also risks dominating over the human love story that is a necessary part of the work. The director of the National Theatre of Greece, Stathis Livathinos, directing his first opera production, goes a little towards abstraction, but not so abstract that it doesn't relate to the underlying reality and the themes or provide necessary spectacle.
There is something ancient but also timeless in set designs for this production of Aida, Alexander Polzin doing well to avoid the imagery of ancient monuments and temples in the desert by symbolically showing the land as a small outcrop of rock; an island in a sea of darkness, that is venerated by the rulers and priests, glittered and shining. There's no mistaking it for anything grand and noble, with soldiers goose-stepping across the stage, blood spattered on their costumes, and there's no exotic dance of Moorish slaves either, the prisoners made to polish the rock during the opera's ballet, ground down into the gleaming rock by their captors until they scream.
The colour coding of the costume design by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer and the perfect lighting by Alekos Anastasiou contribute exceptionally well to defining and differentiating between the various classes and groups of rulers, priests, warriors, common people and slaves. The slaves all wear plain dark blue shifts, the priests in wrapped pale blue robes with Anubis masks - with the High Priest adorned with porcupine-like spikes - the ruling classes in gold, the common people in grey, the warriors in purple. Wonderfully choreographed and directed, it all still captures what is uniquely grand about Aida without the tired grand opera mannerisms, managing to look spectacular as well as stylish and colourful, albeit within a more limited and muted palette.
A more muted palette is also applied to the reduced La Monnaie orchestration under Alain Altinoglu. It can seem a little underplayed and lack the impact of the more bombastic approach, but Aida is a late period Verdi opera where it is worth holding back a little to allow the actual notes of the music to express their own qualities. As a consequence, you can hear the beautiful phrasing of the individual instruments and sections which is all too often submerged under volume and speed. It's not the full-blooded Verdi that many would expect and no doubt prefer, but I thought this account was very refreshing and revealing of other qualities in Verdi's writing, as well as better attuned to the underlying sentiment and themes of the drama.
I don't think you can play an opera like Aida naturalistically, but it doesn't deserve irony either. Stathis Livathinos finds a good balance between stylisation that plays to the themes and the dramatic and musical conventions that call for a certain amount of standing and delivering. The singing is also excellent for what is a very demanding work, all of the singers avoiding any strident expression. Andrea Carè's Radamès and Dimitris Tiliakos as Amonasro fare best with secure and lyrical delivery of their parts. Aida and Amneris present rather more challenges for Adina Aaron and Nora Gubisch who are a more little wavering in pitch and delivery in places, but both bring dramatic character and romantic personality to the roles rather than fall back on operatic mannerisms.
All efforts in trying to bring something new and fresh to Aida however are to no avail if the conclusion fails to deliver emotionally and dramatically (as this season's Madama Butterfly failed to do at La Monnaie). A huge block of stone hanging ominously over the stage and slowly descending to enclose Aida and Radamès while they sang their love duet in delirium was however very affecting and in keeping with the production's question of the price to be paid for power and how it oppresses the human spirit. Such a fresh and ambitious approach to Aida is a difficult task to carry off, but Livathinos and Altinoglu do it with style at La Monnaie, the opera still remaining impressive, but in the right way.
Links: La Monnaie-De Munt, ARTE Concert