France Verdi, Aida: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opéra national de Paris / Michele Mariotti (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Francois-René Martin) from Opéra Bastille, Paris, 18.2.2021. (JPr)
Director – Lotte de Beer
Set design – Christof Hetzer
Visual artist – Virginia Chihota
Costume design – Jorine van Beek
Lighting design – Alex Brok
Dramaturgy – Peter te Nuyl
Puppetry design and direction – Mervyn Millar
Chorus master – José Luis Basso
The King of Egypt – Soloman Howard
Amneris – Ksenia Dudnikova
Aida – Sondra Radvanovsky
Radamès- Jonas Kaufmann
Ramfis – Dmitry Belosselskiy
Amonasro – Ludovic Tézier
A messenger – Alessandro Liberatore
High Priestess – Roberta Mantegna
A little research shows that for Dutch opera director Lotte de Beer the pertinent themes in Aida are – though possibly these are a surprise to Verdi! – colonialism, racism, and sexism. De Beer (soon to be artistic director of the Vienna Volksoper) is quoted as saying ‘Aida is a colonial story, a Western take on Orientalism, made in times when art was looted from Egypt to be exhibited in European museums’ and how she ‘would have liked to have had a black singer for Aida […] when it turned out that four white singers had been cast for the title role, I did hesitate for a moment.’ To overcome the thorny issue of white singers darkening their skins for their roles – which is a no-no these days – de Beer uses puppets as in Japanese Bunraku theatre for the Ethiopians. Aida now is a full-sized restored (stone?) statue of an ancient Ethiopian woman with pendulous breasts, whilst her father Amonasro (the Ethiopian king) is ‘characterised’ by the top half of a naked (wooden?) figure. They are ‘voiced’ by Sondra Radvanovsky and Ludovic Tézier and Aida is manipulated by three puppeteers and Amonasro needs a further two. It is an intriguing Konzept that just does not work for the important confrontation between father and daughter in the Act III ‘Nile Scene’ when there are SEVEN people involved and therefore it lacked any emotional (and dramatic?) credibility.
A quick reminder is essential here: Verdi’s 1871 opera is essentially a love triangle complicated by war centring on Aida who is a slave in the Egyptian court. Aida and Radamès are in love but Amneris, an Egyptian princess, also loves him and is jealous and vindictive. Amonasro is captured and Amneris discovers that Aida is his daughter, and she denounces Radamès because he was planning to flee with her. Radamès is buried alive beneath the Temple of Vulcan at Memphis and Aida shares his fate as Amneris prays for their immortal souls.
Because of Christof Hetzer’s sets and Jorine van Beek’s nineteenth-century costumes we find ourselves at the gala opening of a new ethnographical collection in a grand museum. We have watched Radamès as a diffident and socially awkward military officer in a green unform venerating ‘Aida’ in her display case. Ramfis (supposedly the High Priest) is the museum owner and the King of Egypt seems to be a much-decorated campaign veteran who chooses Radamès to defend their country from the Ethiopian invaders. The elaborately bustled Amneris is dressed in blush pink(?) making her look like – take your pick – Alma Mahler or Margaret Dumont (from the Marx Brothers films) and is probably one of the museum’s rich patrons. Radamès is put on his own pedestal in a shiny breastplate and plumed helmet with the (masked) chorus – later seen as guests at a reception – brandishing spears and swords.
Never does the involvement of Aida-as-puppet come to life because the mechanics of its movements are too obvious in the close-up camera work from Francois-René Martin. The puppeteers are mostly in black though their faces are visible, and they are aided and abetted by Sondra Radvanovsky – also in unflattering black – who sometimes seems to be having a dialogue with the puppet Aida. During ‘Ritorna vincitor!’ we see the first of a number of original painted backdrops from Zimbabwean Virginia Chihota who obviously has her own style though they are rather Klimt-like. Everyone is milling around looking at the previous spoils of war which include a skull (on which Radamès later sheds some of his own blood), a feathered headdress, and Tutankhamun’s golden chariot before Radamès is sent off on the new campaign against the Ethiopians.
For Act II Amneris and her masked ‘social circle’ are in their fashionable undergarments and these friends are having fun and trying to cheer up – a lovelorn though rather temperamental – Amneris about her future wedding. She loves Radamès but, of course, he is in love with Aida. When Amneris tricks Aida into believing he has been killed she seems genuinely frightened by the vehemence of her reaction. The ‘Grand March’ involves a large museum diorama, and I was taken back to an Aida with Plácido Domingo in 1977 when the extras just ran behind the set and returned on the other side carrying a different banner. In this case they were rushing about to ‘construct’ various patriotic scenes from old masters paintings and other sources. These included a version Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’, the iconic Joe Rosenthal 1945 photo of ‘Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima’, and Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 ‘Liberty Leading the People’. We quickly recognise how vainglorious Radamès now is and Amneris is shown to be rather peeved when he has more interest in Aida than in her. Eventually Radamès gets his way and the Ethiopian prisoners are freed before accepting he is to be forced into marrying Amneris and the final image is of him with a red cloak and gold coronet and her in white with huge wings.
There is more evidence in the ‘Nile Scene’ of how weak-willed and conflicted Radamès is and he is browbeaten into letting Amonasro and Aida escape the clutches of Ramfis and his guards. It is during the final act that we see what might have been with greater consistency from de Beer’s approach. Initially it is a simple staging – just a huge screen of green damask wallpaper – and in front of this with just the addition of two chairs Amneris pleads that Radamès saves himself; she is anguished whilst he firmly remains resolute. I was thinking to myself that a chair must go over soon and eventually one did! It was the absence of puppets and puppeteers that made this so good.
There is no real sense that Radamès is entombed though the final scene is effective nonetheless as he is discovered among the bodies of the slain Ethiopian warriors. For the closing duet ‘O terra addio’ Radamès is probably hallucinating and imagines he sees the spirit of Aida. The three puppeteers in the background roam around searching for their Aida who they discover only as we hear Aida sing how ‘our wandering souls fly into the light of eternal day’. At that point they lift ‘her’ up before the puppet ends up cradled in Radamès’s arms and he is left alone for the deeply moving final moments. The visceral impact of these last few minutes of this Aida cannot be denied, though whether this was due to de Beer or merely the sublime artistry of the singers I cannot be certain.
From the applause the orchestra gave Michele Mariotti at the end of the opera he must be well-liked. He had a lot to contend with and did – as heard through loudspeakers – do a good job in keeping everyone together. There were fanfares and other music being piped in from elsewhere and he also had a valiant chorus singing with their masks on. Mariotti conducted with considerable passion and it was as if he could energise the entire ensemble to create stunning crescendos in scenes of pomp and pageantry, as well as quietening everything down for the most persuasive pianissimos during the more intimate scenes.
Mariotti’s accompaniment also seemed to have empathy for all his singers, most notably, Sondra Radvanovsky’s Aida. This latest triumph – following a Met Stars in Concert appearance (review) and Bellini’s Il pirata (review) – continues to find Radvanovsky possibly singing better now than at any time in her career. This is a role she might not get to sing again apart from in a production like this or a concert. So while you can, glory in what a human voice can do and listen to her first act ‘Ritorna vincitor!’ for a passionate bravura performance which scales vocal heights and deeply affecting depths when she sing ‘Numi, pietà’. There is an order of finesse and resplendent technique here and again in ‘O patria mia’ – replete with equal parts nostalgia, anxiety and resignation – which you feel privileged to hear though feared had been long consigned to soprano history. There are floated high notes and the ability to feel every word and phrase. (There were moments when Radvanovsky sounded as if she might have been a little constrained by playing second fiddle to a puppet, but I don’t believe her performance was too adversely affected.)
Formidable Uzbek mezzo-soprano Ksenia Dudnikova provides a counterbalance – though not competition – for Radvanovsky. She has some penetrating dark notes and overcame early nerves to imbue her lines with psychological drama and create a real woman in emotional turmoil because of love, jealousy, fury, and ultimately, impotence regarding her beloved’s treason trial before the priests.
Ludovic Tézier as Amonasro also has to sing behind his puppet as he challenges his daughter to persuade Radamès to betray his gods and his country. Tézier pulls out all the stops in Act III and convincingly berates Aida about her familial duty, reminding her where she comes from and that her mother will curse her if she does not do what he wants.
Jonas Kaufmann is another who has been making some significant appearances during the pandemic. I am not certain he would be everyone’s first choice for Radamès, and his singing is at odds with some of the refinement around him. Kaufmann’s tone is sturdy and burnished, and, for me, his voice lacks Italianata and is frequently used with more force than sensitivity. The latter more often than not involved an over-used soft head voice though I readily admit he won me round with his vital contribution to the opera’s tear-jerking end.
To paraphrase Stanislavski ‘There are no small parts, only small singers’ and all the remaining roles were well portrayed and sung, including Alessandro Liberatore as the Messenger and Roberta Mantegna as the offstage High Priestess. Dmitry Belosselskiy brought authoritative dignity to Ramfis and Soloman Howard’s imposing bass voice gave the King of Egypt a commanding presence.
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