”That was awesome” said the twenty-something chick in front of me, confirming my view that this Aida is perfect for the YouTube generation. All colour and movement; familiar images; and definitely no thinking required.

Opera Australia
Arts Centre, Melbourne

Wedensday, November 11, 2009

Aida”That was awesome” said the twenty-something chick in front of me, confirming my view that this Aida is perfect for the YouTube generation. All colour and movement; familiar images; and definitely no thinking required.

This production is certainly a triumph for the team of designers, which included two people just to design the projections, of which there were many. The set was dominated by a large pyramid shape – conveniently representing the love triangle of the plot – which was decorated at various times with projections. These were often simply hieroglyphic inspired designs, but verged on the obvious with butterflies (for Aida) and the ridiculous with what looked to be sixties psychadelia during the triumphal scene. How very modern.

Other very modern features were a stream across the front of the stage, which I guess represented the Nile, and a travelator. The travelator came into its own in the triumphal scene of Act II, enabling a succession of performers and cut-out figures to cross the stage in a semblance of an army of thousands. Its use here, as at other times, effectively referenced the cartoon-like, one dimensional strip art of the Egyptians. Sadly though its use was often perplexing, as a singer, mid scene, would jump on the thing simply to travel to the other side of the stage – much like bored kids would do at an airport.

Act III was again beautifully represented by palm trees and pyramids, but with lurid colours more evocative of Disney’s Jungle Book reinforced the perception of the principals being lost in a CGI nightmare.

Directed by renowned choreographer Graeme Murphy, and rehearsed here by Shane Placentino, never  a moment was left without movement. The beautifully sung hymn by the chorus in Act I was marred by the blokes having to shuffle sideways across the stage, arms akimbo in some sort of walk like an Egyptian parody. Instead of being able to enjoy the contemplative stillness of the music, I found myself wondering how they would get from one side of the stage to the other without banging into each other. It was a great G&S moment, but an insult to Verdi’s music.

Another fine music theatre moment was in the triumphal chorus of Act II, where in addition to the travelator circus, the chorus bobbed and moved around to give the impression of a milling throng. It was very clever and entertaining, but gave the impression that the directors, finding the whole scene a bit ridiculous, lacked the imagination to transcend the obvious.

There is a fairly decent story to Aida – not just a love story it contains, as with many Verdi operas, pointed comment on the hypocrisy and futility of religious/state fuelled conflicts. Despite Murphy’s published intent to focus on the relationship between the three protagonists, the direction of the principals appeared lack-lustre, with the design gimmicks standing in for any meaningful interpretation of the dramatic and political themes.

Mezzo Milijana Nikolic (Amneris) alone possessed the inherent dramatic presence to compete with the busyness of the design, while American dramatic soprano Jennifer Wilson (Aida) disappointed. Failing to convince as a princess, her discomfort with the direction also seemed to impact on her singing on opening night.  Tenor Rosario La Spina (Radames) too looked hopelessly out of place in this production, sadly lacking the heroic quality required of the role.

Impressing in smaller roles were Jud Arthur (Ramfis) and Barry Ryan (Amonsaro). The orchestra (under Sir Richard Armstrong) and the chorus performed to an excellent standard – not that you could readily notice with all of the distractions of the design and direction.

Aida finishes with one of Verdi’s most sublime musical moments – a trio between the now buried alive lovers, with their nemesis Amneris, above them praying for peace. This moment should have had me at least close to tears. However, I was strangely unmoved, and already reflecting on the disappointments of the evening.

This Aida does nothing more than reinforce the unfortunate stereotype of grand opera as some sort of novelty art with silly stories, poorly acting principals, and extravagant costumes and sets.

I feel sorry for the chick who sat in front of me. She may never know just how “awesome” opera can be when the resources, both creative and financial, are focussed on the singers and the music – the elements which, when done well, rightfully form the core of opera’s appeal.

Bookings: or 1300 136 166

Until 10 December, 2009

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