An absolutely sumptuous production, Graeme Murphy’s Aida is a feast for the senses, with the vivid colour and movement of the show complementing Verdi’s richly textured music.
This is opera on a grand scale, with all sorts of amazing devices giving an original take on how to achieve the grandeur that audiences have come to expect.
The Nile flows before us, mirroring those who sail or swim or wash in it. Parallel with the river, two moving beltways allow characters and armies to glide on and off the stage from both directions.
Vast sets with mixtures of ancient and almost comic book design appear from above while whole groups of people emerge and then vanish into the depths. The grand march features a combination of human and cut-out characters with similar stylised chariots and horses, evoking temple friezes.
Projected images give us anything from hieroglyphs to Hubble-type images of the galaxies, apparent mirroring of dancers, blazing suns and fireworks aplenty.
Never has an opera looked more like a ballet, helped along of course by Verdi’s inclusion of a great deal of dance, but bursting into previously unimagined areas with Murphy at the helm.
Indeed, at one point the ambience of graceful movement is such that it is almost a disappointment when Radames walks onto the stage, rather than pirouetting on and doing a few leaps.
As to the costumes — there’s gold and glitter aplenty, shimmering gowns and headdresses, everything that a fantasy of the court of the pharaohs would conjure up. Dancers with falcon heads represent the sky god Horus while others fly about with beautiful wings.
So, thanks to the talents of the production team, it would be a great night out, even with the sound on mute! But of course everything visual in an opera is ultimately icing on the cake (which is why recordings of opera have outlasted silent movie versions!), and Opera Queensland’s singers and musicians have produced a rich cake indeed.
The principals, most of whom are new to Opera Queensland audiences, are a well-matched group of singers. As the doomed princess, Zara Barrett gives a well-controlled and vocally pleasing performance. In particular she shows her mettle in the challenging duets with her father and her lover in the second half.
As Radames, Julian Gavin gives a confident and beautifully rounded performance, hitting his straps right from the start in “Celeste Aida”. Perhaps a little wooden in his acting, yet he accomplishes the range of challenges presented to him with consistency.
Serbian mezzo Milijana Nikolic is a fiery princess Amneris, her richly mellow voice complementing Barrett’s soprano. Baritone Ian Vayne gives the role of the Ethiopian king and Aida’s father Amonasro the correct level of authority and political cunning, with fine vocal quality. James Clayton is a commanding pharaoh, while fellow bass Alexey Tikhomirov brings his resonant Russian voice to the role of high priest Ramfis. Bradley Dailey does his usual fine job as messenger, while Lecia Robertson contributes from the wings as the high priestess.
The 56-voice chorus sing their multi-line music with great robustness. What a great job Narelle French assisted by Jillianne Stoll have done in preparing them vocally, while revival director Shane Placentino and his colleagues have succeeded in marshalling the troops effectively.
Under Peter Robinson’s direction the Queensland Orchestra give a wonderful interpretation of Verdi’s challenging orchestration. Given the immediate response to think brass when we think Aida, it is nice to be reminded of the beauteous and complex string score, particularly in early scenes. And special mention must go to the on-stage trumpeters who on their long instruments belted out the triumphal music while togged up as Egyptians with great confidence and style.
Of course the greater part of Aida is “chamber opera” in style, and the segues from grand to small work very well.
What’s negative about Aida? Well, whether it’s the remoteness of ancient Egypt, or, more likely, the lack of dramatic skills on the part of writers du Locle and Ghislanzoni, Aida isn’t as emotionally engaging as such other great Verdi operas as Traviata or Rigoletto. The characters are rather one-dimensional, and one can observe but not especially feel their torments.
Still, there’s little that any production can do to remedy this, and it’s very grand indeed that we can have the opportunity to see such a splendid production with such visual and auditory riches.