29 Dec 2006


A luminous blue backdrop, sliding columns, a solitary iconic prop (an over-sized falcon head in the opening scene, for example), singers frozen in stiff, awkward poses — yes, it's a Robert Wilson spectacular!

Traditional productions of Aida can become so encumbered with faux-Egyptian bric-brac and gaudy pageantry that the human heart of the story lies smothered underneath. For some, then, Wilson's approach cleanses the time-worn body of Verdi's masterpiece. For others, the bathwater may not be missed - but where's the baby?

OpusArte's DVD release of Wilson's Aida production at La Monnaie-De Munt from October 2004 will not be likely to add further converts to the store of Wilson fans. For whatever reason, the performers seem to be a rehearsal or two away from full comfort (if such is possible) with Wilsons' style. The close-up perspectives provided by the cameras reveal awkward countenances of forced concentration, as the singers try to remember at what uncomfortable angle their arms should should fold into next, or when to indicate a higher pitch of passion by twirling once. Wilson can be counted on to create at least a few moments of austere beauty, and those occur here too. But too often the blue pallor of the lighting suggests an Aida drained of its life-blood.

No fault for this lies with conductor Kazushi Ono, who guides the Monnaie forces through a lucid, detailed reading. In fact, the sheer energy and vitality of Verdi's score forces Wilson to actually allowing his singer/actors some more natural movement at times, with Ildiko Komlosi in particular taking the opportunity to unlock herself from a contorted pose and express Amneris's growing rage and frustration. As Amonasro, Mark Doss also manages to sing with such force (if not beauty) that he seems to have wandered in from a different production - at least until the ludicrous staging of the end of act three, when instead of fleeing he must follow the director's wishes and "glide" off the stage as the priest's guards stand immobile.

The best of the show comes at the end, in a scene often clumsy to stage in a traditional production. Radames and Aida do not find themselves in an actual tomb, but on a darkened stage, with eerie blue lights on their faces. This haunting spectral image serves as potent reminder of the latent power of an effective Wilson production - which most of the rest of this Aida does not.

Not helping matters, the three leads' singing fails to add any substantial insight or beauty to the proceedings. Norma Fantini stretches to encompass the demands of the title role, and the effort is felt too often. Marco Berti has a large, handsome voice, but one lacking true character. Not known as an actor in any staging, Berti's work here indicates that Wilson still needs some sort of vocal characterization to accompany his uniform approach to acting. Komlosi has the passion, as described above; the voice itself comes across as slightly worn and edgy.

Among the many other DVD versions of Aida, two especially come to mind as "antidotes," if you will, to the Wilson style. Franco Zefferelli leads a cast of very young singers in an intimate production from Verdi's hometown theater of Busetto. And from the 1980s in Verona comes a high-calorie staging, with a strong cast relishing the chance to eat into every square inch of granite scenery. Only the most confirmed Wilson devotees will find much to enjoy in this Monnaie version, however.

Chris Mullins