Monday 3 December 2018

Verdi - Aida (Dublin, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Irish National Opera, 2018

Fergus Sheil, Michael Barker-Caven, Monica Zanettin, Stefano La Colla, Imelda Drumm, Ivan Inverardi, Manfred Hemm, Graeme Danby, Rachel Goode, Conor Breen

Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin - 29 November 2018

Aida doesn't do subtle, but to be frank war doesn't do subtle either and that is essentially the theme and the challenge of presenting what is the peak of Verdi's late period operas. The trick is not to let the grand opera bombast and spectacle overwhelm the love story narrative, and to not let either distort the deeper meaning in the work. I'm not convinced that the Irish National Opera succeed entirely on either of those fronts, but they certainly are aware of the operas pitfalls and do their best to overcome them and in the process deliver an ambitious and powerful account of the work.

The biggest distraction to be contended with in Aida is often the representation of ancient Egypt with its pyramids and obelisks, robes and costumes giving it a remote aspect that removes it from any kind of reality. Michael Barker-Caven aims for a more abstract representation of what all that glamour and spectacle really means in terms of the wielding and exercise of power. Joe Vaněk's set and costume designs manage to retain quite a bit of the iconic imagery of ancient Gods and mysticism, giving it more of a masonic quality in this Irish National Opera production.

I'm not sure there's ever any acceptable rationale however for having mimes in an opera production, and we actually have three of them here adding to what is a complicated staging operating on a number of levels with lots of extra detail taking place on the sides and in projections. It does tend to take away from the traditional focus and narrative progression of the work, but I can live with that and so too apparently could the audience at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin who rose in rapturous response to the performance at the end.

The love story between Aida and Radamès might have been lost to some extent, but in a way that's the point. While these characters are trying to follow their hearts, war, race, duty and nationalism all create divisions and overwhelm any human considerations. Even Amneris is a victim, trapped by the social order that she lives in, part of a war machine that crushes any individual desires. Neither were the anti-war, anti-religious sentiments over-emphasised however, but rather just additional factors reminding you of how those with wealth and privilege are also trapped within the restrictive boundaries that they uphold.

Avoiding the bigger (heavier-handed) picture, the INO production instead focussed on little details that are more often overlooked. Far too many to take in or even comprehend as fitting into the overall narrative picture, but they contributed to the overall impact that it is necessary to achieve. It's about using war and nationalism as a weapon to control and win people over to the idea of blind obedience, making them nice little consumers, distracted by the lure of glamorous clothes, wealth and mindless entertainment. What is lost is also suggested in the more intimate details of Aida's longing for her homeland, for the destruction of nature (soft breezes, grassy hills, virgin forests) that unbridled capitalism and war bring.

So instead of the usual pomp and ceremony in Act III we had Chippendale-like dancers performing for the well-dressed women and pompom-waving cheerleaders for the brave troops returning after massacring the Ethiopian enemies. Everywhere TV cameras chose to show the images the media and the establishment want you to see, one that supports their own interests, ambitions and incursions, one that promotes it as being for the benefit of the people. This is an Aida that speaks of the world we know today without having to make the point in any blunt or heavy-handed manner.

Some of the multitude of ideas worked better than others, but it was most successful and had the most impact when it chimed with Verdi's music. When heard in this context, without it having to support kitsch spectacle and hackneyed costumes, when it supports rather the themes of bowing unquestioningly to the power and influence, Verdi's incredible music shows its true qualities. Fergus Sheil controlled its inherent power well, rising in force as the work progressed, working hand-in-hand with all the detail that was going on on the stage rather than aiming for the big sweep, allowing the score to assert its own undeniable force. Sinead Hayes ensured that the choral arrangements were just perfect (the song of the Priestesses, 'Possente Ftha' just mesmerising), and the overall result was impressive.

Even so, all these musical qualities would be to little avail if the strength of human love didn't arise out of it all as the important factor. In pure narrative terms it's all a bit melodramatic, but Barker-Caven ensured that the characterisation was strong enough to match the sentiments expressed in Verdi's musical writing for the voice. And, despite some worrying set-backs announced before the performance on the 29th November, that was very well catered for with Monica Zanettin and Stefano La Colla having to step in at very short notice for the two principals Orla Boylan and Gwyn Hughes Jones.

How they managed to fit a new Aida and Radamès into such a complicated stage production with elaborate choreography was simply incredible. Both Zanettin and La Colla took maybe five minutes to settle into the roles but after that it was a seamless transition, both rising to the vocal challenges and bringing the necessary warmth and character to the roles. Actually, it might have been more difficult to carry-off if the production didn't have Imelda Drumm in the role of Amneris. She was everything you want an Amneris to be, the driving force behind the human conflicts, but one whose predicament and loss also elicits a considerable degree of sympathy.

Links: Irish National Opera