By Suzanne Tate

Like many industries, The Arts has been hit hard by the pandemic. Theatres have been closed, creatives and performers unable to work, and audiences deprived of the entertainment and enrichment that our vibrant Art community provides. As such, it was wonderful to witness Opera Australia’s return to the stage with Aida at The Arts Centre on Thursday night.

Aida was written by Giuseppe Verdi to celebrate the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo, and premiered there on the 24th of December,1871. It tells the tragic story of a love triangle between the Egyptian commander Radames and the two princesses who love him. Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter, and Aida, her Ethiopian slave. The story is set against a backdrop of war, subterfuge and divided loyalties. The Egyptians are unaware of Aida’s royal position, and the King of Ethiopia wages war against Egypt for his daughter Aida’s return. Aida is torn between her love for her homeland and family, and for her enemy Radames. Radames himself is wracked by similar divided loyalties, between duty and love, and ultimately his love for Aida leads to the unintended betrayal of his country. Amneris is also torn – between love and jealousy, rage and mercy, and her actions begin the process that culminates in the dramatically tragic ending.

Opera returns to the stage at The Arts Centre with a bang, with Aida presenting a musical performance that was purely a pleasure to listen to. American Soprano Leah Crocetto sang the title role of Aida, a role she is familiar with from previous performances in Washington, Seattle and San Francisco. Crocetto sang beautifully, demonstrating impressive control, and clearly communicating the fluctuating emotions of the character. Aida’s love rival, Amneris, was played by French-Russian mezzo soprano Elena Gabouri. She also has prior experience in the role, having made her International debut singing Amneris in Verona in 2012. Gabouri delivered a dramatic, emotional performance. There did sometimes appear to be some disparity in the level of emotion being portrayed by the three primary characters. In comparison, the emotion portrayed by Italian Tenor Stefano La Colla’s performance as Radames was understated, but his vocal performance was outstanding. Overall, the entire cast sounded impressively polished, able to produce an evocative sound that perfectly captured the mood from prayer in the temple to a resounding battle cry.  The orchestra balanced perfectly with the vocal performances, other than in Gabouri’s first performance, which may have been a technical issue.

The set, as designed by Giò Forma, consisted primarily of ten immense digital screens that rotate and glide about the stage to create a dynamic, everchanging digital set. The screens glided smoothly between a range of locations and orientation. During this performance we definitely saw what is possible in the future of Opera, and theatre in general. There is no doubt it is an exciting opportunity that can take ‘set design’ to new heights. While the digital screens, and the content they presented (which was designed by D-Wok) were undoubtedly visually impactful, the combination of technical issues and artistic choices left me wanting. Performances of Aida over the years have become known for lavish, immense sets capturing the majesty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom. I personally found the screens most effective when used to simulate environments such as the towering stone walls etched with hieroglyphs of a palace or temple, or the beauty of the Nile by moonlight. The more symbolic scenes, for example the giant black jaguar who seemed to represent Amneris’ mood, did allow for an interesting new facet to how the story can be told. They were visually impressive, but some of the imagery was more effective than others, and the major technical issue (rolling bars of colour instead of the intended image) on one side of three of the screens at various times during the performance was immensely distracting.  The set also included selective items such as an elegant, Hollywood-inspired day bed as Amneris principal location and a raised dais for The King which was reminiscent of a Roman Chariot. A slight opening night hiccup was evident in the stage crew being visible as they lit the flame of the 2 large braziers at the beginning of Act II, but the natural flame was an interesting contrast to the digital illusions on the screens.

The performance was plagued by a string of opening night technical issues. The surtitles did not appear for a substantial part of Act 1, and once they did appear, they were frozen on the opening line. Later, the correct text did finally appear at the bottom of the screen, but the initial line remained above until interval. The issues were solved during the break, which made the second half of the show easier to follow, however, the Simplified Chinese surtitles, as advertised on the webpage, were not visible.

I was most confused by the costume choices made by Costume Designer Gianluca Falaschi. They were visually impressive, with the Egyptian costumes being primarily black, gold and white, with the addition of turquoise in a later scene. En masse, in context with the set and props (some of the Egyptian animal inspired helmets were fantastic), there was a definite Egyptian feeling. But there was also substantial Art Deco influence in the designs. And if this was carried consistently throughout the cast, it would make sense as an interesting interpretation. But when you started to look more closely at individual costumes, there was a confusing array of periods and styles, with the most notable being Radames dressed in a costume that would not have seemed out of place in the French Revolution, and the Egyptian king wearing a suit of armour that made movement rigid and limited, combining medieval armour with a Roman style skirt and a fantasy inspired helmet. I found it frustrating to not be able to get any emotional read from The King, portrayed by Russian Bass Gennadi Dubinsky, due to the costuming choices. The Ethiopian prisoners were dressed in almost contemporary clothing in a dull grey, which did set them apart visually from the Egyptians, but did not add to the character context in any way. Overall, the costume approach was inconsistent and sometimes confusing, rather than adding to my understanding of the characters.

This version of Aida breaks with traditional in a number of ways – set, costume, and even some directorial choices made by Director Davide Livermore and Revival Director Shane Placentino. For example, we would generally expect to see the tragic climax take place with Aida and Radames in each other’s arms. Instead, they have no contact throughout the final scene, which could be seen to increase the tragedy of the ending by denying Aida her wish to die in Radames arms. This was softened, however, by focusing on the prospect of their afterlife together. This was an example of how the digital content was used effectively in a symbolic way, allowing an innovative interpretation and a twist on the common ending.

Considering the more interpretive approach taken to costume, set design, even direction in this performance of Aida, I was a bit surprised to see the choreography take such a direct influence from the stylised poses found on figures in Egyptian art. It seemed a bit obvious, but also highly unnatural, to suggest those images represent actual human movement. The dancers did an excellent job, however, and while the seizure like movements in the temple scene were also strange and possibly amusing, they also very clearly told a story and set the scene.

Despite some understandable opening night technical issues, Aida provides an intense aural and visual experience unlike anything you will have seen before. It is exciting to see such a vibrant, creative interpretation of Aida being produced in Melbourne, and an excellent performance to welcome Opera back to the State Theatre.

Images: Jeff Busby