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Opera review: Aida, QPAC

Musically first-rate and impressively sung, Verdi’s 'Aida' rises above the idiosyncrasies of this 21st century production. 
Aida. Image is a woman in black singing and gesticulating in operatic style, while members of the chorus lie around her reaching up, they are in Ancient Egyptian costumes, with lots of gold.

Opera Australia’s ground-breaking production of Davide Livermore’s Aida premiered in Sydney in 2018 and was scheduled to come to Brisbane, alongside The Ring of the Nibelungen (The Ring), in 2020. COVID and floods prevented both the 2020 and rescheduled 2022 season from going ahead, but it has finally arrived three years later.

Seven Aida performances are scheduled, slotting in around the three cycles of The Ring to maximise theatre use and provide Brisbane with a complete season of highly-anticipated operatic performances.  Both productions use state-of-the-art, digitalised technology as the basis of the set design, making the transition from Wagner to Verdi and back that much easier in terms of scene changeovers in the theatre.  

For Aida, Livermore worked with multidisciplinary set design company, Giò Forma and interactive design group, D-Wok, to create 10 enormous LED screens, projecting video and other images, which slide across the stage in multiple directions creating separate spaces. Immersive visual experiences are increasingly common nowadays, witnessed in both art exhibitions, as well as stage performances, and they can certainly complement grand-scale operatic works. Moreover, they have much to offer in solving the need to construct huge solid theatre sets.  

The evocative imagery and landscapes displayed on these striking panels in Aida include palace and temple scenes, hieroglyphics, giant writhing snakes, moving half-naked statues, storm clouds and fire, among other images. Mostly, the imagery and video projections add depth and colour to the various scenes, and are quite stunningly lit by John Rayment. The technical delivery is both clever and stimulating, and of the highest order.  

As the opera proceeded, however, this reviewer found the images became less impressive, even tedious, especially when they were repeated several times. They can also overwhelm the action on stage, not allowing the music to speak for itself through the singers. When the images provide a context for place, they work well, such as the glorious rippling River Nile view and night sky in the final act.  

Some of the more esoteric images are simply crass, including a ferocious-looking black panther, his eyes blinking and teeth bared, projected on a screen above Amneris in three separate scenes. The all-too-obvious reference to the love-smitten Princess who wants to get her man seems superfluous, as the music tells us this, nor is it probably an accurate assessment within the narrative.

Similarly, a messenger galloping on a horse through the desert is confusing within the musical context of Radames’ triumphal return. Aida’s rendition of her delicate prayer at the end of ‘Ritorna vincitor’ is accompanied by distracting red billowing storm clouds, losing much of the poignancy of the moment. There is also some strange semi-nude and nude imagery that mostly seems gratuitous, adding nothing to the narrative. 

Choreography, originally by Livermore, is disappointingly cringeworthy. In several scenes, 10 dancers writhe around in mechanical, amateurish postures that are as incomprehensible as they are irrelevant to the narrative. The sacred rites performed in the Act 1 temple are particularly disappointing.

The Act 2 triumphal march, usually a highlight of the opera, is here reduced to a strange mix of spiky balletic dances followed by a static vocal delivery by chorus, actors and cast. Placed on a dais, the King, played by Conal Coad, is hemmed in by the crowd, though he manages to sing effectively. The screens around the singers are cleverly lit with fire effects and moving statues, but there is no triumphal march and the cast has no space to move, so it is a real fizzer. There are clearly moments when digital technology can be a hindrance rather than an asset. 

Costume designer, Gianluca Falaschi, has a field day with a range of colourful Egyptian-influenced costumes of the period of the Pharaohs, with gold in abundance, contrasting with the drabness of the Ethiopian prisoners. Curiously, the King is dressed in what appears to be medieval battle dress with helmet, so that we never see his face. His presence is thus greatly diminished. 

Ultimately though, it is the music and the quality of singing that carries any opera and in this we are well rewarded by exceptionally excellent playing from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. From the opening gentle bars of the overture, which so beautifully foreshadows the tragic ending, through the powerful rhythms and cadences of Verdi’s marvellous score, Maestro Lorenzo Passerini is in complete control of his musical forces. With an energetic and authoritative hand, he delivers the work with passion, sensitivity and a marvellous attention to detail. Clearly knowing the opera intimately, he also shows masterful support to the singers in one of the best readings of this work that this reviewer has heard.    

As the Ethiopian Princess and slave, Aida, Natalie Aroyan delivers a finely crafted emotional and impressive performance. Her soprano rises strongly and she has a warm timbre and luscious colour in her voice. She is at her best in her two arias, including the beautiful heart-wrenching song to her country, ‘O patria mia’ and in her scenes with her lover, the Egyptian Guard Captain, Radames. There is clearly a warm rapport between the two of them, especially in the final act where she convinces him to flee with her, and then in the final scene in the tomb. 

As the brave but ill-fated Radames, Diego Torre’s powerful and ravishing tenor is on full display. The opening aria, ‘Celeste Aida’, is beautifully and touchingly sung, effortlessly rising to the top notes and floating his voice with ease. He is equally impressive in his duets and trios with both Aida and Amneris, his dramatic ability as thrilling as his vocal quality.    

Elena Gabouri’s Amneris is underpowered in her first scene with Radames, possibly due to poor staging within high screens. Fortunately, her power increases throughout the evening with an expressive top to her strong dramatic mezzo, though her bottom notes are not as engaging. Her final scene with Radames, where she tries to convince him to save himself, and followed by the judgement scene with the High Priest, is mesmerising and passionately delivered.   

Alexander Vinogradov’s High Priest, Ramfis, is suitably unpleasant with a commanding bass voice that is both dark and rich. A heavy vibrato in his first scene fortunately disappears in later scenes.   

As Aida’s father, the Ethiopian King Amonasro, Michael Honeyman gives an authentic and committed performance. While he is vocally at times a little lightweight, his duet with Aida is an electrifying moment in the score, with both singers torn between their various loyalties.  

The Opera Australian and Opera Queensland choruses, some 70 people strong, sing well, even if the stage direction leaves little for them to do dramatically. 

The final poignant tomb scene is well-crafted, though Amneris needs a better entrance than hovering on a ledge above the two dying lovers. A parting tableau as the screen images dissolve is well-staged. 

Read: Exhibition review: Fairy Tales, Gallery of Modern Art

Overall, the winner of this production is Verdi’s glorious score and Ghislanzoni’s libretto, which is matched by a first-class conductor, fine orchestral playing and excellent singing from a strong cast.   

Aida by Giuseppe Verdi   
Presented by Opera Australia and Opera Queensland 
With libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni 

Conductor: Lorenzo Passerini 
Director and Choreographer: Davide Livermore
Revival Director: Shaun Rennie 
Revival Choreographer: Allie Graham

Set Designer: Giò Forma
Costume Designer: Gianluca Falaschi
Lighting Designer: John Rayment 
Digital Content Designer: D-Wok 
Cast:  Natalie Aroyan, Elena Gabouri, Diego Torre, Michael Honeyman
, Alexander Vinogradov, Conal Coad, Jennifer Black, Dean Bassett
Opera Australia Chorus, Opera Queensland Chorus, Queensland Symphony Orchestra 

Opera Australia Actors and Dancers 

Aida will be performing until 20 December 2023.

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.