Verdi never visited Egypt. Apparently, he had a pathological fear of being mummified and his research into Egyptian history and culture before composing Aida was slight. He may have suffered from Agyrophobia a condition in which the sufferer fears Egypt and everything associated with it. Maybe this justifies why the setting though dazzling, saturated with gold, silver and bling isn’t authentic but rather an indulgent approximation of ancient Egyptian culture.
Acclaimed Italian Director Davide Livermore takes the audience on a visually, sumptuous journey, with extravagant costuming, with ten towering LED screens contributing symbolic imagery, grandiose themes, naked male and female torsos and coastal, wooded and desert landscapes. The richly conceived costumes designed by Gianluca Falaschi were shiny, intricate, glam and self-consciously cheeky but the Egyptian King wearing a silver helmet and a breastplate looked discordantly Roman.
Evidently, Livermore isn’t a subscriber to the less is more principle because the razzle dazzle became relentless, so much so that the appearance of Aida’s Dad, the King of Ethopia, in a dusty, old suit with a cohort of similarly scruffy prisoners-of-war provided respite.
The plot is a love triangle rife with a conflict of interest. The Egyptian Princess Amneris and her slave Aida, an Ethiopian Princess, are rivals, both of them head over heels with heroic Radames applauded for his victories against Ethiopian aggressors. Aida is patriotic while seeking to partner her beloved country’s most brutal oppressor.
There were remarkable and yet baffling qualities to this lavish production. On the positive side, the combined Opera Australia and Opera Queensland chorus was immense, mercurial, an impressive force with a rousing or tender tone and savage attack. In general, the singing was strong. Australian-Armenian Natalie Aroyan’s powerful voice as a believably beleaguered Aida easefully soared above the orchestra. Her silvery tone blended and soloed rewardingly in duos with the tenor Diego Torre as a convincing Ramades and French-Russian Elena Gabouri as a tortured, jealous Amneris. Gabouri’s singing was powerful, emotive with an especially fine lower register. Brisbane-born baritone Michael Honeyman was good as Amonasro and Conal Coad commendable as the King.
Of the soloists, Torre stole the show because his powerful operatic voice was always expressively framed and meaningfully directed. Italian Maestro Lorenzo Passerini conducted the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with precision, insight and passion.
The baffling elements included a troupe of young women dancers weaving through and around the action on an already crowded stage. The inclusion of dance in an opera production is a welcome addition. But the choreography of bizarrely twitching, writhing moves was a head scratcher. Religious ecstasy perhaps but the message was ambivalent and the dance distracting.
The Triumphal March is Aida’s biggest hit. At this climactic point, trumpet solos blazed with superb clarity from either side of the stage. But the visual projection featured a lone horse-back rider cantering towards the audience on arid land. Where were the elephants? The horse drawn carriages leading a conquering army? After all the pomp and ceremony and colourful splendour this registered as an oddly anti-climactic moment.
D-Wok’s digital content was stunning at times and mostly pertinent but the excessive use of swirling clouds and mists of red to conjure the opera’s passion began to pall. When the doomed lovers Radames and Aida are buried alive and on the brink of death, the imagery transitioned to white and the cold grey light was a relief.
It's an exuberant production and the music is of a high standard. If you can, go along decide for yourself whether the grandiose visuals support or overwhelm Verdi’s score and the production as a whole.
Gillian Wills is an author and arts writer who has published with Australian Stage Online, Limelight, Griffith Review, Australian Book Review and The Australian. Big Music her novel will be published by Hawkeye Publishing. Her memoir, Elvis and Me: how a world-weary musician and a broken racehorse rescued each other, Finch Pty was released in 2016 in Australia, America, Canada, The UK and NZ.
Opera Australia and Opera Queensland present
Director Davide Livermore
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC, QLD
Dates: 6 – 20 December 2023
Bookings: phone | website