Estonia Verdi, Aida: Soloists, Estonian National Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Vello Pähn (conductor). Estonian National Opera, Tallinn. 19.10.2017. (GF)
Stage Director – Tobias Kratzer
Designer – Rainer Sellmaier
Lighting Designer – Priidu Adlas
Video – Chris Männik
Consultant on Acting – Marko Matvere
Movement Director – Hedi Pundonen
Aida – Aile Asszonyi
Radamès – Mikheil Sheshaberidze
Amneris – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Amonasro – Jassi Zahharov
Ramfis – Priit Volmer
The King of Egypt – Märt Jakobson
The Queen – Olga Zaitseva
A messenger – Mart Madiste
Tobias Kratzer has become known as a breaker of new ground in opera direction, often turning conventions upside-down and throwing new light on courses of events and characters. I have greatly admired several of his productions: Rigoletto in 2009 and a staged version of Bach’s St John Passion in 2012 – both at Wermland Opera in Karlstad. At the same time I had objections to certain details, for instance elements of farce in Rigoletto, which tended to obscure the tragedy. There are such elements in this Aida as well. The end of the Triumphal Scene becomes a fancy-dress party, where even a mummy has awoken and left his pyramid. But while such faux pas were relatively negligible in the Karlstad productions, here the oddities are numerous and sometimes inexplicable. If Kratzer has a message with this Aida it is that in wars the losers are always humiliated – and always have been. The fact that present time and ancient Egypt are mixed points in that direction. The action takes place in a hotel room, where Aida is the cleaner. In the second half of the performance the floor is filled with sand that poured down from a container at the end of the Triumphal Scene. The Egyptian King has his wife with him, and in the first act she sings the lines allotted to the high priestess. Ramfis, the Egyptian high priest, is dressed in black and has a Christian cross on his breast. The clue to this is found in an interview with Kratzer and his designer Rainer Sellmaier, in the programme notes. “Verdi depicts the priests, especially Ramfis, as hypocritical and cynical. But he had no detailed knowledge of Egyptian religion. By talking about Egyptian priests he is basically alluding to the Catholic church of his time and is criticizing it for its structure of power and obedience – a point he has made quite clear in other operas, such as Don Carlos”. In an obvious reference to the topical debate on the sexual abuse by Catholic priests, Ramfis rapes Aida. In the death scene, Aida and Radamès take poison, still in the same hotel room. I have seen many odd productions of this opera, but this was the hardest to stomach. Others may well find it wholly logical and credible – my congratulations to them. The production was premiered in January of this year, and although the auditorium was well-filled, the applause was rather feeble.
No complaints about the musical aspects of the performance, however. Both chorus and orchestra were in fine form and the acting was wholly convincing. Tobias Kratzer is a good director, and here he was supported by an acting consultant and a movement director. I was full of admiration for their work. And the singing was largely up to the standard one expects from the ENO. Aida was sung by Aile Asszonyi, a singer I have praised on several occasions before, both as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte and Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus. She even sang ‘Ritorna vincitor’ at a Verdi Gala some four years ago. After a slightly hesitant start, she was soon up to her usual standards and was superb in the Nile scene. The Georgian tenor Mikheil Sheshaberidze also was at his very best in this scene as Radamès. His ‘Celeste Aida’ in the first act was a little pale, but possibly because he sang behind a semi-transparent curtain.
Veteran baritone Jassi Zahharov is a noted Verdian, and I particularly remember his Rigoletto of some years ago. Amonasro is a much smaller role but he has some wonderful things to sing. First in the triumph scene, when he is brought in as prisoner, and then in the Nile scene, where he tended to shout too much but still created an unforgettable portrait of the Ethiopian King. Monika-Evelin Liiv was a magnificent Rinaldo in Handel’s opera some years ago and her Amneris was marvellous.
Priit Volmer’s powerful bass has been heard in many important roles at the Estonian National Opera, and for a period he also sang at the opera house in Bonn, Germany. His was a monumental, Mephistophelian Ramfis, dangerous and slimy. Märt Jakobson’s Egyptian King was a bit subdued, but Olga Zaitseva’s Queen sang the high priestess’ solo well and Mart Madiste, as the exhausted and badly wounded messenger, was very convincing.
There were too many loose ends in the concept for my taste, but at least I enjoyed the music, the singing and the acting.