Blood-red clouds swirl apocalyptically overhead. A black panther with piercing green eyes stands warily close by. A gold-plated serpent is charmed to coil around the crowd and bare its fangs.
Or is it all a dazzling mirage? No surprise in an opera set in the deserts of ancient Egypt, especially one as tricked out as this.
The digital illusions in Opera Australia’s shiny-and-new production of Aida are eye-poppingly impressive. But they’re not merely for show. What the richly animated set projections achieve is a clarity in storytelling so often missing in the presentation of opera.
More than that. There is, rarely, a harmony in design aesthetic with the preposterous stories and histrionic performances that opera so readily serves up. Naturalism be damned. Turn everything up to 11. Suddenly, those hammy performances look more like pastiche. We can all revel in the camp of a sand-and-sandals epic, inexplicably set to Verdi’s lush, distinctly Italian strains.
This is utterly diversionary entertainment, a lull-less treat for ears and eyes for near three hours.
Set backdrops slide, spin, virtually dance around the stage, creating both vast horizons and snug temples with the flick of a switch (and some very sophisticated projection equipment). Opera Australia calls it the future of the form, and it now has a renovated space in the Joan Sutherland Theatre to make it all come alive.
That, of course, is hyperbole to sell tickets. Opera must do better than design bells and whistles to claw back relevance in the artspace of now. I’m more interested in excavating humanity in these stories, which only quality performances and singularly smart direction can achieve. Most opera fans, I think, are of the same mind.
But we’ll take a little razzle dazzle every now and then. As long as it’s done as wonderfully as this.
Davide Livermore, an internationally celebrated opera innovist, directs and quite daringly choreographs the spectacle. He reigns nothing in. You might call it gaudy if it wasn’t so calculated.
The set technology is delivered by more Italians: architectural designers Giò Forma and interactive digital firm D-Wok. Compatriot Gianluca Falaschi has designed the costumes as if the Egyptian empire didn’t fall, buffed and blinged to an eye-squinting shine. It’s lit by an Aussie, with great care and skill, in John Rayment.
Musically, too, under the flamboyant baton of Andrea Battistoni, this Aida can’t be faulted.
After her awarded turn as Sieglinde in Opera Australia’s most recent Ring Cycle, American Amber Wagner returns to Australia to make her debut as the eponymous Ethiopian princess (let’s generously call it colour-blind casting to not get distracted). She’s a consummate soprano across the range, but it’s the sheer power of her instrument that really thrills. Her third-act love-sick aria O patria mia was particularly scintillating, drawing involuntary cries of “brava” from the captivated crowd.
As love rival Amneris, French-Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Gabouri gives a near-comically exaggerated performance. But she’s vocally assured, showing off a luscious lower register on opening night. Riccardo Massi, a spinto tenor of rare vocal quality, is man-in-the-middle Radamès, torn between love and country. Local talent Warwick Fyfe, Jane Ede and Jud Arthur also star and more than hold their own. (All principals bar Ede are replaced later in the season; check your local guides.)
This is utterly diversionary entertainment, a lull-less treat for ears and eyes for near three hours. It might not advance opera any, but it goes some way to its artistic emancipation, showing just how much giddy fun the form can be.
Aida plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until August 31
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