Verdi - Aida

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday June 4 2017

Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Director: Stathis Livathinos. Sets: Alexander Polzin. Costumes: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. Lighting: Alekos Anastasiou. Choreography: Otto Pichler. Aida: Monica Zanettin. Radamès: Gaston Rivero. Amneris: Ksenia Dudnikova. Amonasro: Giovanni Meoni. Ramfis: Mika Kares. Il Re: Enrico Iori. Una Sacerdotessa: Tamara Banjesevic. Un Messaggero: Julian Hubbard. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

On Saturday night, watching The Voice on TV with friends for the fun of finding fault with it, we saw a pair of teenage hopefuls take on a Bee Gees number and another tackle Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now." The result highlighted how good the Gibb brothers and Freddie Mercury actually were and how hard it is, in fact, to sing their songs. The kids were catastrophic. The cast in Brussels the next day far from it: they were pretty good, but just far enough short of premier league to remind us that Verdi isn't a pushover and how hard it is, in fact, to sing his songs. The usual culprits: weak bottom or strangled top note here, lack of declamatory oomph when the drama needs it, uneven emission or wavering intonation there... But these were occasional glitches. They formed a well-knit, hardworking, deserving team and acted well, so we had a very satisfactory afternoon's Verdi, the kind of team show La Monnaie does well - also very much because Alain Altinoglu's no-nonsense yet sensitive and detailed approach played to the Monnaie orchestra's strengths. And in addition, having given the matter some thought, I decided that Stathis Livathinos's production was the best Aida I've ever seen, live or not (my personal gold standard in sheer awfulness being the Met's). It was a pity we had to see it in La Monnaie's temporary home, the dreaded plastic tent.

The overall effect was coolly coherent and neoclassical. I don't think this was just suggested by the director's Greek name. It came, too, from the neutral colours, the simple, single set (unity of place), the masks, the timeless, deeply pleated costumes, the way chorus and extras were lined up, the way the dancers were used, and from the focus on intimate, human drama rather than the pomp that still gets over-emphasised. (I say "still", because, in France at least, it's a well-worn music-journalist's cliché to stress that Aida is an intimiste work, unsuited to conference centres, Olympic stadia and amphitheatres. Doesn't seem to make any difference, though.)

The set was the same throughout: a rocky, oval platform centre-stage, much like Ariadne's desert island, and suspended above it, a thick slab of grey concrete or steel with a hole in the middle, like the oculus at the Pantheon. The rock could, we discovered, be subtly lit from within in different colours, depending on the mood. It was quite often wreathed in stage smoke - a sea of smoke, making it even more insular-looking, and to add to the desolation, during pauses in the music we heard (so long as a jet wasn't roaring overhead) the moaning of the wind. Sometimes a richly-decorated, translucent gauze came down - Aida sang "O patria mia" in front of it. The whole production was carefully lit, often from the sides.

The costumes, of no particular era, though at once faintly 18th century and very faintly space opera, were colour-coded: the Egyptians in sandy beige, Aida and all the other Ethiopians in indigo. The males of the Egyptian court wore jackal masks, Amneris's ladies wore beaked ones and brutally forced Aida's followers to wash the rock with their blue dresses. Ramfis looked like a shaman, with a cage of long, dry rib-bones attached to one sleeve and long hair hiding his face. The king was in almost episcopal robes, ample and high-collared, with a gilded owl mask.

The desolation of the "island" and the moaning winds hinted that all was not as well as the martial music suggested. The soldiers, dancers in long, dusty greatcoats, goose-stepped with broad, mechanical gestures, almost jauntily across the stage, until the last one fell behind and collapsed in agony. For the triumphal march the director spared us the spear-carriers and white horses (just as he also, thankfully, spared us the modern soldiers in camouflage fatigues, brandishing machine-guns, I'd feared we might get once again)  by using an old trick: the chorus looked out into the audience and watched an invisible parade go by, their heads turning like fans' at a tennis match, waving flags, visibly enjoying the spectacle. They froze, however, for the ballet, as a line of Ethopian women almost staggered in with tiny steps and turned to face the audience. Their silent screams turned to real ones - loud - as they stabbed themselves violently in the stomach. The moaning wind whipped over the Nile and of course around the fatal tomb. And of course, at the end, the suspended slab at last descended and encircled the dying lovers in a shaft of white light.

Conditions in La Monnaie's plastic hangar were no better than before - in fact they were worse. The heat inside was stifling, so the staff had put a little bottle of water by every seat. It must have been terrible the week before, when outside temperatures had suddenly hit 33° in the shade. Zaventem is probably gearing up for the summer holiday season, so there were plenty of planes taking off, and Altinolglu paused at length to let one scream overhead before giving Radames his cue for the final scenes. But this was the very last performance in the plastic "palais", and as we left one of the staff had fun shouting "Farewell to Thurn und Taxis" and suggesting we all come back the next day to snap up souvenir sections of the structure as it was dismantled. Good riddance!

Maestro Wenarto sings "Celeste Aida".


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