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Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
31 Dec 2010

Aida at Bregenz Festival 2009

Some years ago a witty soul coined the term “jumping the shark” to identify the point at which any long-running television program had exploited all its innate story/character development possibilities and had to resort to ridiculous plot contrivances and spectacle to keep the episodes — and paychecks — coming.

Giuseppe Verdi: Aida

Aida: Tatiana Serjan; Radames: Rubens Pelizzari; Amneris: Iano Tamar; Il Re: Kevin Short; Amonasro: Iain Paterson. Wiener Symphoniker. Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Directed by Graham Vick. Set and Costume Design: Paul Brown.

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For the curious, “jumping the shark” referenced an episode of Happy Days, a program that for years stayed within the confines of a small American town in the 1950s; in said episode, the characters ended up in Hollywood and one entered a contest to — yes, indeed — water-ski over an enclosure containing a shark.

If one thinks of the Bregenz Festival as a long-running hit show — and in the opera world, this lake-side venue for elaborate outdoor productions can fairly be called such — then with the 2009 Graham Vick Aida, the festival has indeed “jumped the shark.” The booklet essay (by Kenneth Chalmers) to the DVD set quotes many a laudatory blurb from various European reviews at the time of the show’s premiere. So maybe the experience on DVD can’t capture what the show is like live. As caught by cameras, Vick’s Aida is a frenetic mess — whether the action takes place in ankle-deep water, aloft in crane-elevated cages, boats, or fragmentary statuary, or on an endless flight of stairs. The success of the festival undoubtedly offers directors an ample budget, and the very nature of the lakeside venue demands big effects. But when an opera gets as hopelessly lost as Aida does here in all the pyrotechnics and staging conceits piled on the stage — and despite the authentic opportunities for spectacle in the libretto, at its heart this is a fairly intimate story of thwarted love — the “shark” has been “jumped.”

With the amazing work of set and costume designer Paul Brown, Vick presents a world with no set sense of time or place, mixing ancient and modern elements. Costumes are primarily contemporary, through with some elusive sense of logic; the priests, for example, wear papal miters. At the rear of the stage two huge blue feet, spangled with stars, have a vaguely period Egyptian look, as do other fragments apparently broken off the original monument, but the whole is clearly modeled on the Statue of Liberty. It’s a very Euro-friendly concept — America as subtext for militaristic oppression. Thus Amneris, who often wears a dress with stars spangled on it, appears at first with two leashes, at the ends of which are two prisoners with hoods over their heads. Why Amneris has been assigned Abu Ghirab prisoner-walking duty doesn’t have to be contemplated — just go with the anti-American flow. Aida is truly a slave here — not a higher-ranking attendant to the princess, as she is usually depicted. Wearing a dull jacket over a orange-red shift, she is washing the stairs with others slaves when first seen. Radames sings his opening confrontation with Amneris from yards away, and many of the key scenes have a similar distance between protagonists and antagonists, weakening the force of their interactions. In act three, when Aida is confronted by her father, he appears from the water before the stage, like the Creature from the Red Sea Lagoon. It’s all like the famous description of the staging of Meyerbeer’s operas — effects without causes.

The color scheme Vick and Brown work with may blind those sensitive to one end of the spectrum — from hot pinks to emergency beacon orange and onto purple and turquoise. The dancers spend a lot of time kicking up spray on a platform covered in about a foot of water. For act two, Amneris’s attendants manhandle some amazingly buff (and mostly Caucasian) Ethiopian prisoners in tighty-whiteys. Some viewers may be ready to escape into the tomb with Radames and Aida at the end, except there is no tomb — the condemned lovers sail off into the distance through the air, in a crane-hauled boat.

For sheer spectacle, this may well be the Aida to beat — and yes, it includes a huge elephant at one point (not a live one, but still — the cranes can’t be trusted with everything). However, for those actually interested in Aida as an opera, this set can’t be recommended. Besides the score being, as the booklet essay describes it, “trimmed,” the singers get no real chance to develop interesting characters or make their own vocal qualities known. The latter is true because they are all miked. The voices of the leads appear to be lighter than those one would normally hear in a conventional opera house, and the sound mix keeps the voices within a narrow range. As Amneris Iano Tamar looks smashing, but her lower range is too weak even for the microphones. To some extent the same is true of Iain Paterson as Amonasro, although he has enough power in the body of his voice to make a decent impression. The two leads have pleasant voices but neither Rubens Pelizzari as Radames or Tatiana Serjan as Aida give any indication of having the vocal goods to tackle these roles in a production without microphones and a sound mixer standing by. Conductor Carlo Rizzi and his orchestra are surely “miked” as well, and they whip up a fine wall of sound in the ensembles and triumphal parade.

The Blu-Ray version does make for an amazing picture on any high-end television. For viewers open to a version of this opera that places 21st century stage and camera technique over the essence of the work itself, this is not a set to be missed.

For others — consider the shark successfully jumped.

Chris Mullins

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