From its premiere performance in Cairo on Christmas Eve 1871 to Sydney in 2023, Verdi’s Aida has always been one of opera’s greatest hits. Opera fans have had a long wait to see this exciting new Opera Australia production, which had to close before it really opened due to the pandemic we need not name.
Originally directed by Italy’s Davide Livermore, and now under revival director Shaun Rennie, this is quite literally a dazzling production built on impressive, and undoubtedly very expensive, technology. All the traditional staging and sets have been replaced with towering digital screens designed by Giò Forma with the digital content designed by D-Wok. These screens seem to glide effortlessly around the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage, creating new shapes and spaces.
They fill the stage with images and video of hieroglyphics, slithering golden serpents, galloping horsemen, swirling red tempests, a prowling black panther and more. Idealised bodies, male and female, tower above the stage in nearly-nude grandeur.
This is all undeniably impressive, but it does unfortunately rather overwhelm what’s actually happening on the stage. The screens and imagery are so big and bold that they get in the way of the storytelling just as much as they enhance it. The emotional impact and heart-breaking tragedy just gets a bit lost amid all the whizz-bangery. And the reality is that we are now all so utterly immersed in screen culture, often surrounded by LED advertising screens that cover entire city buildings, that this is less of a ‘wow’ factor than it would have been only a few short years ago.
So for me, and I think quite a few people in the audience on opening night, the cumulative effect was one of distraction rather than engagement. A little would have been a good thing but too much is … well, just too much.
Aida is a spectacle in its own right with all the mythology and magic that imbues our love of Ancient Egypt and the greatness of the pharaohs. It is also a tragic tale of love and betrayal, of patriotism and duty, and of sacrifice and revenge. All of this great human drama is told through Verdi’s wonderful music, played here by the Opera Australia Orchestra – out of sight of the audience as Verdi would have wanted – under the agile baton of conductor Stuart Stratford.
US soprano Leah Crocetto plays the tragic titular character, who ultimately makes the supreme sacrifice for love. She has beautiful phrasing and a voice that could reach to the heavens. Natalie Aroyan, who features on the program cover and on all the posters around town, takes over as Aida from 8 July. Tenor Najmiddin Mavlyanov plays her beloved, the conflicted battle hero Radamès, a role he knows well. And mezzo-soprano Elena Gabouri, always popular with Opera Australia audiences, is Amneris, the other woman in this tragic triangle.
Each of the principals sings superbly, bringing out the rich colour and depth in these haunting arias. Despite their technical brilliance, however, some of the essential chemistry seems amiss on stage, putting our willing suspension of disbelief just a little out of reach. This is partly because there is just too much going on – the giant screens, the dazzling digital effects, the writhing dancers and the fabulous (but rather OTT) costumes by Gianluca Falaschi – which are fashionably Egyptian if not at all historically accurate! And every time you take your eyes off the stage for just a moment to read the words floating way up on high, you know you’ve missed something shiny.
There is still so much to admire about this production, especially the unfailingly excellent work of the Opera Australia Chorus and some of the performers in the smaller roles. Popular bass baritone Warwick Fyfe is perfect as Aida’s father, Amonasro. He owns the stage for his every moment. David Parkin is suitably commanding as the King and Roberto Scandiuzzi does full justice to Ramfis. The offstage banda brings to life one of Verdi’s greatest hits, the ‘Triumphal March’, playing with panache from the balconies. The Opera Australia dancers have lots of work to do and fully embrace the modernist dance tradition under revival choreographer Allie Graham.
Opera companies around the world are constantly experimenting with new forms of production to grow the opera audience, and that is to be encouraged, even if it’s not always 100 percent effective. This Aida won’t be to everyone’s taste (and, yes, perhaps I am something of a traditionalist) but it is a spectacular production and one you should see.
The entombed ending with Verdi’s haunting ‘O terra addio’ is really beautiful and a stunning finale to this three-hour performance. This production is most definitely a memorable experience and the ticket price pays for itself in the hours of debate it will provoke about the future of opera!
Tickets: from $81
Aida will be performed at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, to 21 July 2023. The principal cast changes in early July.