Verdi - Aida

ONP Bastille, Friday October 25, 2013

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Olivier Py. Sets and costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Lighting: Bertrand Killy. Il Re: Carlo Cigni. Amneris: Luciana D’intino. Aida: Oksana Dyka. Radamès: Marcelo Alvarez. Ramfis: Alexei Botnarciuc. Amonasro: Sergey Murzaev. Sacerdotessa: Elodie Hache. Un Messaggero: Oleksiy Palchykov. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

By the time I got round to seeing Paris's first production of Aida in half a century (not counting extravaganzas in sports arenas) it had already been booed in the house and battered by the press, so much so that I had an e-mail from a friend the morning before saying "As for Aida, you've seen such negative feedback that you'll probably enjoy it". He wasn't exactly right, but I did wonder what all the kerfuffle was about. Kerfuffle there was even last night, well into the run, by which time things have often calmed down. "C'est pire que la bataille d'Hernani !" said the lady next to me at the interval, clearly delighted, as insults were traded between those against and those in favour.

Verdi
There was nothing wrong with the overall concept, to those of us willing to accept the ensuing mis-matches between the text and what we saw.

The plot was transposed to make Egypt the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ethiopians Italian rebels, though the idea that an Austrian empress might keep an Italian slave was of course odd, and we were all puzzled (the man behind vocally and loudly: that was what triggered the “bataille d'Hernani”) by the appearance in Memphis/Vienna of a gigantic brass monument to Vittorio-Emanuele Re D'Italia, even if it was clear from that superfluously capital D that Py wanted us all to think of VERDI. (The suspicion that Py assumes all opera-goers are a bit thick and need things rubbing in is never far away.)

The production's intention was also to remind us that Aida isn't necessarily just a tragic love story with engaging local colour and ballet dancers got up as picturesque Ethiopians (as the Met sees it, for example, in what is to me a far worse production), but involves serious Verdian themes: fanatical religion (and in this transposition a colonialist bourgeoisie) urging empires on to war, which in turn involves death, whether in battle or in camps, and bodies: naked ones piled up and trampled on in a charnel house under the raised stage: this production made full use of the Bastille's formidable machinery. The subsequent generalization of the themes of religion egging on power to oppress and destroy, by introducing deliberate anachronisms is also, now, a frequently effective operatic device: modern soldiers in camouflage battledress (well, half in, half out: they were usually impressively bare-chested so the ladies of the chorus could admire and even fondle them) with modern weapons; Radamès' golden tank; the fascistic art-deco look of that mysterious monument to Victor-Emmanuel; the Ethiopians/Italians huddled together in ragged wartime clothes, clutching suitcases.

This was not a complete relecture, as the French call it. Once you accepted the concept, the transposition, the intention to take the story seriously and tease out its implications, the jumbling of eras to imply timelessness... the action was scrupulously (sometimes almost laughably) faithful to the libretto. For example, when Amonasro sang “Pur rammenti che a noi l'Egizio immite / Le case, i tempii e l'are profanò / Trasse in ceppi le vergini rapite / Madri, vecchi e fanciulli ei trucidò” a naked female dummy was pushed through the brass columns above to hang from a rope. When he got to “Su, dunque! Sorgete / Egizie coorti / Col fuoco struggete / Le nostre città…” the maquette of the Vittorio-Emanuele monument towering over the surrounding city, on castors to the right, duly burst into flames*.

With its organ-like brass colonnades framing the stage; its brass neoclassical palaces rotating to reveal ballrooms with giant chandeliers or the gigantic columns of that curving brass V.E.R.D.I. monument; its golden Arc de Triomphe and a ballerina in a white tutu welcoming the victors home; bright, warm lighting dazzling the audience as it glanced off the revolving brass; the shimmering grisaille backdrop of a war-torn city, especially when a cross burst into flames behind it; the impressive raising of the stage to reveal the charnel house house beneath (there's a necropolis under the July Column on the square outside the opera house, for the bodies of those killed in the 1830 revolution; I wonder if Py was also thinking of that? I did); the magnificent, sober 1870 costumes and hairstyles... this production delivered many magnificent images.

The trouble is Olivier Py piles idea upon idea with apparently no sense of which are simply corny (soldiers frantically threatening everyone and anyone with plastic Kalashnikovs), ridiculous (the cleaning ladies polishing up the brass; that woman's rubbery body popping out to hang: as one reviewer said, Py's dummies were “too bouncy”; Amneris aimlessly waving a pistol, as convincing as Fischer-Dieskau with his hammer in Ponnelle's film of Le Nozze), or one reference too many (the Inquisition as KKK; the chorus, in 1870s dress, brandishing modern placards with slogans such as “Long Live our Colonies”, “Death to Foreigners” or the highly topical** “Droit du Sang”).

And not only do the massive, totalitarian sets deliberately overbear; they push the singers to the front of the stage, where Py leaves them entirely to their own devices, as if a forgotten detail – just as in his recent Alceste. My personal conclusion was that a different director could take the same transposition and basic concepts, the same sets and costumes, strip out the silly gimmicks, above all train the singers to act (which is surely what he's really there for) and make a magnificent show of it. I'm not sure, as it was, it deserved all the booing - the kerfuffle.

It was certainly idiotic to go so far as to boo Oksana Dyka. From where I sat the poor girl looked close to tears. Hers is a big, steely Ukraininan voice, more di forza than di grazia, sometimes hard to keep under control and not really suited to Aida, whose part calls for more delicacy and douceur than she can manage - though it is not true, as some reviewers claimed, that she made no attempt to sing piano, and it's definitely to her credit that she can at least sing all the notes with ease and, in the vast Bastille house, is audible beyond row 10.

Marcelo Alvarez does have the delicacy and douceur required and was without doubt the vocal star of the show. I think, though, he may have been a bit off-colour on Friday evening, so while he's definitely a fine Verdi tenor, his more heroic moments had less than the expected éclat. He is no more a born actor than Oksana Dyka is a born actress: both, left to their own devices as I mentioned, gesticulated conventionally at the front of the stage.

One critic I read unkindly quipped that Luciana D'intino gives you "two voices for the price of one". It's true that her voice changes audibly (clunkily, you might say) from one register to another and on Friday evenings she had some distinctly rocky moments, but there are times when she has a marvellous grainy sheen and, whatever some reviews may have said, I didn't find her outrageously chesty. She had the merit, at least, of being a seasoned (OK, perhaps a bit overseasoned) trouper, though she somehow gave off a vague impression of wishing she hadn't got herself into this mess, as it were: all that effort, waving pistols and clambering over rubber bodies, to get booed every evening.

Some of the rest of the cast could have been better; I don't think I need to go into more detail. The chorus were on form and were loudly applauded; and the orchestra was at its best, delivering solidly magnificent Verdi (possibly more solid than Verdi ever expected from his contemporary orchestras) under Jordan.

*I got that wrong. The dummy popped out after the flames, at "Tua madre ell'è… ravvisala… Ti maledice…" A useful reminder that I write these reports from memory, and that my memory, these days, is shot.
**France is currently up in arms over the expulsion of a family of illegal immigrants.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Celeste Aida".

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