Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Verdi - Aida (Stockholm, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Royal Swedish Opera - Stockholm, 2018 

Pier Giorgio Morandi, Michael Cavanagh, Christina Nilsson, Ivan Defabiani, Katarina Dalayman, Lennart Forsén, Alessio Cacciamani, Johan Edholm, Jihan Shin, Jessica Forsell

OperaVision - April 2018

If there's one Verdi opera that needs to be continually reassessed and reconsidered in terms of whether it still has any real relevance or anything to say to a modern audience it's probably La Traviata, but Aida isn't far behind. Both works might have been fuelled by real anger against social institutions, but if they ever did have anything important to say it's easy for it to get lost in the star power and glamour that the operas' settings and subjects inevitably attract. La Traviata however can be immensely powerful and hard-hitting about society's treatment of women when it's allowed to be, and condemnation of the horrors of war in Aida need not necessarily be submerged under the bombast of Verdi's score and the pomp and ceremony of grand opera spectacle.

You do have to question the effectiveness of Verdi's treatment in Aida however, in how it seems to get carried away with its exotic setting and location, in the attention that Verdi pays towards Eastern-influenced melodies, grand religious ceremonies and ceremonial triumphal marches before royalty. With the melodramatic turns of love, family and duty all becoming intertwined, it threatens to overshadow the anti-war, anti-religious sentiments that are there, but there have been some notable attempts (and failures) to move away from the glamour and address the real issues at the heart of the work - if you consider that they were ever really there.

The short overture to Aida certainly reflects a more sombre note, and in Michael Cavanagh's production for the Royal Swedish Opera, that's immediately established as being associatedwith the more intimate story of the individuals whose lives have suffered because of the demands placed on them by the 'state'. We already see Aida and Radamès buried alive in the tomb that descends to show a figure we can presume in Amneris, lying face down in a pool of blood with a knife by her side. The note of melancholy that can also be found in Radamès ode to an impossible love for a slave girl of his nation's enemy ('Celeste Aida') is soon overwhelmed by cries of 'war and death' as the news of Amonasro's advance is brought by the High Priest, Ramfis.

It's in such contrasts however that Aida does effectively present the conflict between the individual's hope and dreams and the necessity of putting them aside for something as monstrous as war. Radamès's personal conflict is mirrored in the situation of Aida later in the opera when she is torn between her love for Radamès and her love for her father, Amanasro, the King of Ethiopia whose armies have been routed and taken captive by the Egyptian commander and his forces. There's also very much a case put of there being no real victors when it comes to war. "Today we are the victims of fate, tomorrow fate may strike you", Amonasro warns Radamès, and history has shown the truth of such turns of fate in the downfalls of the great. 

This aspect is borne out and elaborated upon quite successfully in the Stockholm production even if the focus is very much on the small personal drama. It's hard to criticise the production on those grounds, as this is indeed very much how it is played by Verdi. So yes, Aida has musical and dramatic flaws, or even if you don't consider them flaws - and it's perfectly valid to enjoy the opera for the music and singing for what it is - you still adjust the emphasis at your peril. Olivier Py's scattershot Paris production demonstrated the risks inherent in that whereas the chamber approach as seen more recently in the La Monnaie production, touched much more effectively on the true nature of the work in a way that prevented it from it appearing dated and out of touch with the times.

Magdalena Åberg's set and costume designs for the Royal Swedish Opera production are unimposing, but there is a balance struck between modern military uniforms with AK47 rifles and some nods to the Egyptian heritage of the work with its robes and ceremonies. The production does well to avoid the familiar imagery and processional choreography, presenting a more minimal stage with a gold wall in the background and blue lighting that nonetheless retains an air of a royal palace with notions of strict protocol and order. So there's a fresh modern outlook on the work at the same time as the necessary contrasts between the institutions of the state and the ordinary citizen are marked out well; contrasts that focus on the intimate love story at the heart of the work, one crushed by the weight of those powers that Verdi depicts so dramatically. 

The main issue that has to be dealt in a production of Aida is in how to present it's Triumphal March; whether to make it a glorious spectacle or undercut it with realism. Cavanagh's approach wisely takes a dim view of celebrating slaughter, so while the chorus and trumpets are proclaiming victory and the greatness of their King, we are shown scenes of the reality of the war that Radamès has waged against the Ethiopian tribes. And it is very much that of a large military force, bulked out in combat gear with every precision targeting technology at their disposal, bringing horror to the lives of ordinary citizens. It's very well staged - with curtains blocking off live vignette scenes rather than using projections - and it hammers home the horror of the contrast between the ideal of duty and the reality for Radamès. 

Musically, Pier Giorgio Morandi conducts an excellent performance that plays well to the contrasts of Verdi's melodies and the variety of sentiments within it without letting it get too sentimental. The singing performances, despite some initial reservations with timing and technique, are also quite good, and backed up with a superb chorus. You have to pity any young tenor who has to launch straight into an aria like 'Celeste Aida' with barely time to warm up, but Ivan Defabiani's Radamès really comes through spectacularly later with a performance that builds in character and confidence. Christina Nilsson as Aida also takes a short while to find her feet after 'Ritorna vincitor', but likewise gives a fine performance, the two of them making a convincing young couple whose love is challenged by the scorned Amneris. Katarina Dalayman shows the right kind of imperiousness tinged with regret, although her voice is lacking some of the necessary force. It's in this small scale drama that the bigger picture is reflected, bearing out the words spoken earlier that "Today we are the victims of fate, tomorrow fate may strike you".

Links: Royal Swedish Opera, OperaVision