In a suitably grand reopening for Melbourne’s much-loved State Theatre, Opera Australia brings the digital dazzle with their high-tech production of Verdi’s Aida.
The global pandemic presumably takes a good part of the blame for the delay in Melbourne being treated to the LED experience, although the 2020 update of the State Theatre rigging has surely helped to accommodate the massive mobile panels. Following Aida in 2018, Sydney has already seen further such productions with Anna Bolena, Madama Butterfly and Attila.
Of these, it is particularly hoped that Anna Bolena will play in Melbourne, given the city’s love of bel canto and the fact that it was billed as being the first of a new round of Donizetti’s Three Queens Trilogy from Aidadirector Davide Livermore and digital content design company D-Wok.
While Livermore’s stage direction of Aida is dominated by the significant space occupied by the ever-moving panels, his strong character work successfully burrows to the human heart of the opera. Most striking, and highly memorable, is Livermore’s ingenious concept for the final scene, bringing fresh, affecting originality to a sequence that seasoned operagoers have most likely seen multiple times (no spoilers here).
There are a number of other insightful directorial touches. In a brief, solemn prologue, a melancholic Amneris cradles Radames’ jacket, a jacket we immediately see him wearing as the story proper begins. In act four, Radames’ trial is seen upstage, the screens angled to create a rear courtroom chamber effect while Amneris emotes downstage.
The addition of dancers is relatively common practice in staging Aida. Here, a set of ten female Opera Australia Dancers are extensively utilised to varied effect. Sequences of traditional dance, albeit with a distinctively modern feel, are entertaining whereas moments of violet writhing and falling to the ground less so. It would seem to be a clear mistake to have the closed-mouth dancers in the front row during key choral moments. It is also odd to clear the stage for the dancers in “Gloria all’Egitto” as it is then not clear just who they are dancing for.
Livermore’s vision for Aida is borne out by his regular creative associates, set designer Giò Forma and costume designer Gianluca Falaschi.
Forma, working closely with D-Wok, keeps physical furniture scant, yet suitably imperial, allowing the digital images to dominate the eye. It cannot be denied that the vivid animated images are beautiful, although they occasionally run to distraction, turning time-honoured arias into virtual music video clips seemingly aimed at the short attention span of the YouTube generation.
The proliferation of gleaming gold in the scenery and costumes gives a palpable sense of the empire that Egypt seeks to protect. The animal motifs of a purring black panther and writhing golden cobra add a sense of visceral danger. Objectification of the human body shows equal opportunity, with the male and female form both adorning the background at times.
Falaschi’s costumes are truly spectacular, with the extraordinary headwear being a clear highlight. Aida’s glittering outfit belies her status as a slave, but this is a lone quibble in an evening of couturier splendour.
Whenever digital scenery is utilised, the work of the lighting designer is stymied, as direct light destroys the vision from the LED screens. John Rayment has arranged lighting bars in custom positions to offset this effect as much as possible. Difficulty is encountered in act three, set by the moody banks of the moonlit Nile, when the lead singers are each reduced to a floating upper torso and head, like hand puppets the puppet characters in a Punch and Judy show. It must be noted that the best view of the beautifully detailed costumes comes in the curtain call.
Setting aside the visual exploits, the true splendour of the evening is Verdi’s glorious music, superbly realised by maestro Tahu Matheson. In the larger configuration of the State Theatre pit, Orchestra Victoria gives a magnificent performance, Matheson ensuring that moments of regal brass and stormy percussion ring out to thrilling effect.
Chorus master Paul Fitzsimon delivers similar majesty from the Opera Australia Chorus. The high choral quality is really of no surprise given the number of listed singers seen in lead roles on other stages. Given the terrific work of the chorus, it is disappointing that their bow in the curtain class is rather perfunctory, with relatively more time going to the sets of dancers and actors.
With the world’s stages still bereft of live opera, the lead performers surely needed no encouragement to journey to Australia for this season.
A wonderfully affecting Aida, American soprano Leah Crocetto makes an auspicious Opera Australia debut. Well into the opera, Crocetto’s lovely rendition of “Ritorna Vincitor” is the first moment to make a true emotional connection with the audience. Crocetto’s dynamics vary from an exquisite, heart rending pianissimo to a soaring fortissimo, easily heard over the full company at the climax of “Gloria all’Egitto.” By the time of “O Patria Mia,” expectations are high and Crocetto really delivers, conveying Aida’s all-consuming anguish through her entire physicality.
As the cripplingly conceited princess Amneris, Elena Gabouri keeps the audience at something of a distance in acts one and two. The quality of her mezzo soprano is clear, yet judiciously constrained. Gabouri unleashes her full strength in act three as Amneris begs Radames to defend himself, continuing the compelling journey as Amneris practically writhes in distress as Radames is tried and sentenced to death.
Stefano La Colla brings a strong, true voice to Radames, but lacks initially passion in his rather static performance. Opposite Gabouri’s intense presence in act three, La Colla lifts the stakes, concluding with genuinely poignant work as the entombed Radames gradually expires in act four.
Michael Honeyman raises the stakes at end of act two with the first appearance of Amonasro. Although the season of La Traviata on Sydney Harbour only took place a few short weeks ago, Honeyman appears to have made further advances in his performance quality. Following his authentic work as Giorgio Germont, Honeyman expertly crafts another Verdi father, bringing a piercing sense of realism to Amonasro, beloved father of Aida and proud king of Ethiopia. Fiery sparks between Honeyman and Crocetto are matched by thrilling orchestral playing in “Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate.”
In superb voice, Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov gives a sharply focused performance, adopting a deliberately slow walk to enhance the regal stature of Ramfis.
Gennadi Dubinsky proves himself a great sport, playing The King while hidden behind a mighty metallic costume, his ruminous bass nonetheless heard with commanding expression.
The Aida program can be read online.
Photos: Jeff Busby