Sweden Verdi, Aida: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of The Royal Stockholm Opera / Pier Giorgio Morandi (conductor), Royal Stockholm Opera, 24.2.2018 (GF)
Direction – Michael Cavanagh
Sets, Costumes & Masks – Magdalena Åberg
Lighting design – Linus Fellbom
Dramaturg – Katarina Aronsson
Video – Velourfilm
The King– Lennart Forsén
Amneris – Katarina Dalayman
Aïda – Christina Nilsson
Radamès – Ivan Defabiani
Ramfis – Alessio Cacciamani
Amonasro – Johan Edholm
A Messenger – Daniel Ohlmann
A Priestess – Angela Rotondo
Aida is in effect a dual drama, with a public part and a private part. The two parts intertwine to some extent during the first two acts but basically it is in the last two acts that the central drama, the private love triangle, blossoms. We must not forget that the opera was commissioned by the Cairo Khedivial Opera for the opening of the house and thus the public, historical setting was essential to creating pomp and circumstance. Due to the Franco-Prussian war, the premiere was delayed and Rigoletto was given instead. The triumph scene, which is what most people think of when they hear the title, is grand opera at its most pompous – but as director Michael Cavanagh points out in the programme, this is one of Verdi’s most intimate stories.
Of course, the triumph scene here is duly grand, with massive forces of singers on stage and the Aida-trumpets spectacularly positioned in boxes on either side. But otherwise this is a rather sparse production. Much of the action takes place on a rather narrow strip of space on the front of the stage with a black backdrop, where ‘windows’ of various size can be opened to highlight sundry events – often only hinted at but often also very specific flashbacks to the war, in which Radamès was the victorious commander. And yet he, personally, suffered greatly from what he experienced during the war and the triumph scene is a trauma for him, showing him writhing in agony on the ground, overcome by memories. Part of the production is a plea for peace, and in this respect it has similarities with the Finnish National Opera’s production of Aida some eight years ago.
The idea of combining historically oriented costumes with modern camouflage uniforms and Kalashnikovs is another common denominator. The eternal question of true love versus the responsibilities of patriotism is also central, and all three main characters, Aida, Radamès and Amneris, wrestle with these conflicting feelings. I was asked in the interval whether I felt this production was too ‘modern’, but the answer was no! The production exists in a limbo in which time doesn’t matter, and thus it speaks us today just as it would have in ancient times, in the Middle Ages or during the two World Wars. The mix of costumes only enhances the feeling of universality.
Musically it was well catered to, with the Royal Orchestra in sterling form and led by Maestro Morandi, a leading authority on Verdi, having been assistant conductor to Riccardo Muti and a regular at the Royal Opera for Italian opera. He has a firm grip on the proceedings in Aida, from the nervously fluttering pianissimo strings in the prelude to the same strings dying away in the tomb scene three hours later before the lights go out. The disciplined opera chorus is also a wonderful asset to this opera with its imposing chorus scenes.
Casting Aida is not wholly unproblematic. One needs six big voices, most of which also call for a lyrical vein. This production’s sextet met these requirements admirably. Lennart Forsén’s King was not as steady and opulent as in his heyday, but there was no lack of authority. His colleague, the bass Alessio Cacciamani, imported for this production’s Ramfis, was downright monumental. Johan Edholm’s Amonasro was rather wobbly and unfocused in the second act – though dramatically formidable – but back on form in the Nile scene, where he offered truly full-blooded Verdian baritone singing of the highest order. As Radamès, the young Italian Ivan Defabiani was fearless and brilliant, but also showed great sensitivity for nuances. Besides the singing he was also a very convincing actor. Katarina Dalayman, recently changing from soprano to mezzo-soprano roles, was reportedly indisposed with a cold – the Swedish winter has been uncommonly severe this year – but of this little or nothing could be detected – she was the Amneris of my dreams, both vocally and scenically.
And Aida herself? Young Christina Nilsson – her namesake was one of the greatest sopranos of the 19th century – was the winner of the Renata Tebaldi International Voice Competition in 2017 and her singing in one of the greatest roles for Italian prima donnas was sensationally good. I expected no less, having heard her before, but here she showed true mastery. The voice is big, brilliant and beautiful, and like Tebaldi, she can spin the most delicate of pianissimo threads and still project over the orchestra. Her Nile aria was absolutely marvellous, and in the tomb scene she and Ivan Defabiani created magic with their restrained lyricism. In that scene she – at last – changed from the blue frock she and the other slave girls had been wearing throughout the performance to something floor-length in shining royal red.
Aida had been seen 561 times at the Royal Stockholm Opera before this new production was mounted, but it has been a long time since it was last staged, and obviously one had been longing for its return. The premiere was sold out weeks in advance. Nobody will have been disappointed at what was seen and heard. This new version is something of which all involved can be proud.