Aida Without the Show

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Verdi: Aida   Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: Fabio Luisi, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 2.3.14 (JR)


Aida:            Latonia Moore
Amneris:        Iano Tamar
A priestess:   Sen Guo
Radames:      Aleksandrs Antonenko
Amonasro:     Andrzej Dobber
Ramfis:          Rafal Siwek
Messenger:    Dmitry Ivanchey

Director:        Tatjana Gürbaca
Sets/Lights:   Klaus Grünberg
Costumes:     Silke Willrett
Chorus:         Jürg Hämmerli

Zurich’s Luisi Verdi cycle continues with this new production of Aida.  A spectacular Triumphal March with elephants, jugglers, camels, sparkling costumes, pageantry, opulent backdrops of Egyptian temples and Pyramids: sorry, if you want to see any of those, book for Verona or go to the Albert Hall. For a modern, intelligent but alternative view, come to Zurich.

Anyone who saw the barren Rigoletto here last season, from the identical production team, should have known what to expect. The curtain rises, not on a King’s opulent palace, but a large drawing room, with unpleasant harsh globe lights and grey foam sofas from the 1960s. Colours are cold-War Eastern European, faded pink. We are perhaps in a Dictator’s mansion, which might overlook Cairo’s Tahrir Square; the only props are a large old-fashioned television set and some half-empty bottles of booze. Ramfis, the High Priest, is dressed head to toe in a garish blue suit, the warrior Radames is in appropriate combat uniform.  Whilst the country is at war, Princess Amneris has been shopping on-line for some gaudy but expensive clothes; the King is dressed immaculately in an off-white suit and jarring brown shoes. Aida is the palace cleaner, equipped with yellow rubber gloves and bucket. There is humour: when the messenger arrives, from a courier company I suspect, he shows the newest details of the conflict with the Ethiopians on his rather heavy laptop. The King’s children play with a toy military helicopter.

The Triumphal March scene, or lack of it, is the most controversial. Gürbaca has done away with it entirely so we can focus on the strife between the principal characters: isn’t that what modern producers always say when they strip away the trappings of old-fashioned opera productions? I’m not sure a large section of opera-going public agrees with the concept. So instead of a big show, we get Radames lying, exhausted after his battles, on a couch, watching part of the ecstatic crowds on his television, and there are then glimpses, from behind veils, of some debauched partying. As if to make the point, some men saunter across the stage pretending to be elephants. There are also, however, glimpses of the other real side of war, a soldier in a wheelchair, assassinations, a shell-shocked soldier and a widow with her husband’s ashes in an urn. In the scene of Radames’ trial, Radames is electrocuted during questioning, then dragged offstage.

The set hardly changes throughout the opera; in the last Act, in the tomb, the ceiling falls in and the stage is covered with dusty white debris. The libretto at that moment reads: “The fatal stone has closed over me”. The clouds of dust has the singers needing a drink, conveniently left behind from the Palace drawing room, and has the double basses brushing off the dust from their instruments. The stage has to be swept before the curtain calls.

Gürbaca describes Radames as a dreamer, unaware that his love for Aida is a non-starter. Princess Amneris appears dressed in black in the dying bars of the opera, not in the temple over the tomb, but in the tomb itself, as the angel of death, to caress Radames and deliver her final line of the opera “I wish you peace”.

The production is certainly thought-provoking but a large section of the first-night audience felt short-changed and made their disappointment vocal.

The singers were, by and large, of high standard throughout. Aida was sung by Latonia Moore, from Houston (Texas); apparently, two seasons ago, she stepped in at short notice at the Met to sing the role of Aida and has become one of the favoured Aida interpreters of the moment. I was not always happy with her singing; there were some squalls, some asthmatic breathing, but also, to be fair, some glorious high notes and phrasing. Antonenko is a Latvian spinto tenor, rather characterless in timbre, but otherwise beyond reproach. Rafal Siwek is a born Grand Inquisitor/Pimen, is too Russian a bass for this part, but sang the role of High Priest Ramfis impressively.  Iano Tamar, from Georgia, was a firm-voiced bright Amneris and won the acting honours. Andrzej Dobber, a Polish baritone, impressed as Amonasro, as did the stalwart Pavel Daniluk as the King.

Which leaves Luisi and the orchestra. Fabio Luisi is almost an anagram of fabulous, and that about sums him up in Italian repertoire. He did not miss the Triumphal March; but he knew what to expect.

John Rhodes