It was back-to-back Verdi for me this week. Opera Australia are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth by performing six of his 30 operas this year. Melbourne gets two: Aida and A Masked Ball. Both celebrate the grand traditions of opera with big music, outrageous plots, huge ensembles (there really are non-singing sword carriers) and magnificent designs.
Aida is famed for its utter hugeness; there were live animals – including 12 elephants – in the 1871 Cairo premiere. It’s the story of an Ethiopian princess, Aida, who’s enslaved to an Egyptian princess, Amneris. Things go pear shaped when the man she loves, Radamès, is chosen by a goddess to lead Egypt against the advancing Ethiopian army, which is led by Aida’s dad. And if that isn’t enough, Amneris is also in love with Radamès.
Graeme Murphy’s Aida is exquisite to look at, so much that it could be billed as designer Roger Kirk’s Aida. The design is as sumptuous as three-hat 20-course degustation with extra desserts. This visual feast re-creates ancient Egypt with a contemporary eye and fills every space with detail and treats that distract from other distractions.
And there are distractions.This may have a lot to do with a venue that was not designed for opera. The endless frustration of the State Theatre is that non-amplified voices are sucked away beyond the first few rows of the stalls and that directors don’t re-stage for a venue that they know has problems. Daria Masiero sings Aida with magnificence and heart, but even in the middle of the stalls, her clarity was lost – but not as much as the offstage chorus’ singing. What’s even worse (and possibly unforgivable) was hearing stage noise (mechanical and human) because it instantly takes attention away from the music and the performers.
As a production with a budget that could fund a handful of chamber opera companies for a handful of years, I expect everything on the stage to be as perfect as it can be – even if it stretches to some extra cans of WD40, a re-block and even some subtle amplification.
This Aida celebrates all that is grand and over-the-top about Italian Romantic opera, but for all its delicious eye candy and glorious voices, there’s little new or exciting about it. It’s the same old same old with a slick new look. Despite the heart-breaking story, there’s no on-stage tension and the chorus, dancers and ensemble have little sense of character or space or even of being on the same stage as the principals. Maybe when it was written, the chorus only existed for sound, but it’s structured in a way that opens up so many possibilities, especially as so much of the first half action is witnessed by a crowd, but the second half takes place in secret. Opera is grand, but it’s the attention to detail and the bringing it into our now that can make it exquisite.
Then there’s A Masked Ball. This production’s by Catalan company La Fura dels Baus, who have appeared at various festivals in Australia, and are known for original productions on a grand scale where the line between audience and performer is smashed.
This opera’s another doomed romance where Amelia (Jacqueline Marbardi) wants a herb to make her forget that she’s in love with King Gustav (Diego Torre), whose most trusted bff is her husband, Ankarström (José Carbó). It’s complicated.
These three performers are wonderful (and I was near the front, so had no sound issues; I could even differentiate voices in the chorus). Each respect the music and its history, but let themselves be in the world created for this Ball.
And it’s this world that makes this work so different from Aida. Director Alex Ollé and designers Alfons Flores (set) and Lluc Castells (costumes) have created a contemporary story, or rather a future dystopia. Rather than forcing the opera onto a design, they’ve made a world where masks are not just for dances and balls but must always be worn in public. (Just don’t think Kryten from Red Dwarf because you’ll giggle at the wrong moment.)
It’s a bleak and grey place that hides its hopes in dark corners and behind shiny masks. In a world of corrupt power, trust can turn to death in a second, fortune tellers are believed in secret and the chorus and ensemble are shadowy and angry rebels or officials who know to never make a wrong move. This chorus are alive and make the world real by being an active part of the story.
I was talking to a man who was very huffy at the end of A Masked Ball and told me that I should see a “proper production”. No thanks. I was very happy with this one. If operas are produced as reproductions of dead pieces of art, they will always look and feel dead on the stage, but when they area created as works about us, they prove that these 19th century European creations are just as magnificent and relevant as they were when they were first seen.
Aida dates: 1,4,7,9,11 May
A Masked Ball dates: 26 April and 3 May