This is how we do it

This is how we do it

Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida, Rosario La Spina as Radames and Jill Grove as Amneris in the Canadian Opera Company 2010 production Aida. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Aida has a dodgy reputation, for many good reasons.

The trappings of the grand opéra, a tradition it partly belongs to, don’t age particularly well: the majestic representations of statal and religious gatherings, the 4-5 acts, the mandatory ballets, the perennial plot involving the tenor or the soprano torn between love and duty to a larger collective, the exotic locales, the staging of national pride. The opera goers in 2010 will have had decades of exposure to the Hollywood epic under their belts, and also decades of ‘camp’ – not only learning how to read camp and discovering it in unexpected places, but also practising it and observing it being enacted in live cabaret, mainstream pop, fashion. Many a Hollywood epic, and just about all of those DeMille had his hands in, are forever lost/given to camp. In short, there are representations visual and musical that we as an audience can’t receive with a straight face anymore.

Aida is also one of those operas that don’t seem to be able to shake off political suspicions. In 1993, Edward Said wrote about it in his Culture and Imperialism as one of the foremost Orientalist creations of the 19C Europe, a work not about but part of f imperialist domination – it came into the world together with the new Cairo opera house, the opening of the Suez canal, the European establishment of Egypt as a semi-colony joining the circle of civilization. The charge of Orientalist politics gloomily stuck, in spite the fact that Paul Robinson published a brilliant rebuttal that same year in Cambridge Opera Journal, showing that the politics in Aida are much more complex and ambivalent. (It is a story of Egypt colonizing a weaker Other, actually; Egyptians get the European music whereas the music materials which could be read as Orientalist are put in the ballet scenes and are highly gendered; Aida is more about Italian than any other politics, part of Verdi’s Risorgimento meditations where Amonasro et al. stand in for the Italian unity fighters against the yoke of the Habsburgs, etc.) From then on, all conversations about Aida had to show awareness of this debate, and the speakers had to explain which side they are on and why. That very few people still argued the unreconstructed Said view didn’t put the matter to rest.

With so much baggage clunking around it, one wonders how is it that Aida became one of the most frequently staged operas today. I’ll tell you how: people like their Hollywood off screen too. If anybody ever makes a coffee table book about the Aida stagings of the last thirty years, it’ll be one helluva entertaining collection – not to mention a great book of practical tips for the art of drag queen-ing. There were exceptions to the camp opulence – Hans Neuenfels’s 1981 Frankfurt/Main radical restaging, together with a couple of stagings in the 70s, ushered in the Regietheater thingy in European opera houses, and Peter Konwitschny’s 1994 Graz Aida is now also considered a re-stage of historic consequences. But for the most part, Aida as a pageant – and therefore, Aida the irrelevant – continued on unabated.

How did the director of the newest Toronto Aida Tim Albery approach this problem? The best (the only) way possible: he left the entire wacky amusement park out of the equation. If Aida is to be embraced by the future generations of opera-goers and music listeners (and if it wants to keep a good chunk of the current audiences), this must be done. The production has been receiving good reviews all round, but the writers almost to one express either their dislike or their reservation regarding the staging that is so disrespectful to the history of the traditional Aida. However, there can be no half-hearted measures in this matter: the traditional Aida stagings must be killed in order for Aida the opera to survive. The 1870 idea/fantasy of the Ancient Egypt, no matter how much it colonizes your memories of Aida, is not an essential part of it. And how big a distraction it is one realizes after seeing a production of this sort, where the fundamentals begin to stand out.

You will finally begin to hear the music. The voices of the soloists get heard in ways previously unavailable: Sondra Radvanovsky’s Aida wears a cleaning lady uniform and no makeup and has very reduced stage movement (not a single expansive gesture, nothing from the standard pool of movements aimed to illustrate nobility or dignity, very little direct gaze even) but how her voice soars! It dresses her, it creates the sets, it carries the action. The same with other principals, whose movement is mainly low key, the demeanour almost inward looking (you get used to this vocabulary, so when Jill Grove as Amneris gives herself to some moderate fretting in the Act IV, you feel it’s almost too much). Their voices provide all the colour necessary. You can finally hear the orchestra, become aware of the instrumental soloists or the leading lines, because for once you don’t have to follow the movement of the mass of supernumeraries on stage and try to guess how the stage hands will move the current set with the sphinx and the pyramid. You can finally notice the cabaletta that Rosario La Spina’s Radames sings with Aida after a long-ish exchange, the one that musicologists claim is a vestige of an older form and which Verdi kept at his librettist’s insistence and against better emotional judgment; you can notice the pastoral moments in ‘Celeste Aida’ and ‘O Patria mia’ as clear hints of another musical and geographical country.

The less-is-more works particularly well with the instrumental sequence that contains the Triumphal March. There is no marching happening, but a controlled, minimalist staging of the two or three key scenes of what a military victory involves. The music that you’re hearing, some of which you’ve known for a long time, gains a different meaning – sounds differently. Aha. There are many aha-moments in this production, often when the shift in how the music signifies becomes obvious to you.

The final, Tomb scene, ordinarily a pitfall of camp, treacle, Sirkian melodrama and inadvertently hilarious tomb real estate, in this case is a marvel. The setting consists of the plain cement or stone walls with absolutely nothing to distract you or keep your thoughts dawdling. Same goes for the costumes. There is nothing to focus on but the two people facing death. Your mind can’t escape anywhere else but back to the music and the two voices. You get grabbed, and kept in that tomb until Aida extinguishes the candle, Amneris says the final ‘Pace t’imploro’ and the entire house goes dark.

Don’t miss this production.

Verdict:       * * * *

Further readings:

Paul Robinson, ‘Is “Aida” an Orientalist Opera?’  Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 1993)

The four articles on ‘Aida’ in Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1/2, ‘Primal Scenes’: Proceedings from a Conference Held at University of California, Berkeley, 30 November-2 December 2001 (March 2002)

Ratings explained

0 – Exactly what’s wrong with this society

*  — Forget about it

* * — Some redeeming qualities, see it if only to get conversation fodder

* * * — Exciting

* * * * — Crying while cycling back home

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