It is almost 3 years since Opera Australia introduced design-altering LED digital screen technology to audiences when Italian director and choreographer Davide Livermore’s Aida opened in Sydney. Since then, the company has produced numerous such works but none had made it south to Melbourne.
On Thursday night, that changed when the dazzling liquidity of Livermore’s production opened the company’s autumn season at the State Theatre. And how exciting for all sorts of reasons to have the company back after an almost 18-month absence and to welcome live performance again at the State Theatre after more than one year.
Rarely would Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida be conceived without laying on lavishness and spectacle. Both came together here as the story’s ancient Egyptian setting received a bold 21st century makeover using loads of imagery as 10 giant screens slid and pivoted into place around stage action comprising more than 100 stage performers.
Lofty engraved gold panels and hieroglyphics, coiling cobras and walls of flames, a giant black panther and a shimmering moonlit Nile, slow moving images of near naked pharaoh-like men and sensuous priestesses – the list goes on.
There are some really evocative scenes as part of Livermore’s collaborations with Giò Forma’s set design and D-Wok’s video design but most of the time you might find yourself wracking your brain to find meaning throughout the overall restlessness.
The unfortunate freezing of the surtitles for a good part of Act 1 at “Whatever have you done? Oh, you poor man!” in a way said what was going through my mind.
And then, it was as if costume designer Gianluca Falaschi had chanelled the strong and glamorous Art Deco lines and glittering threads of the great 20th-century artist and designer Erté to achieve his Egyptian wardrobe. In contrast, the Ethiopians were attired in military uniform and bland greys of the peasantry of the World War One years.
So, was Livermore attempting to reset Aida during this time of conflict? More a nod perhaps, since a sense of the fantastical overrides it all – like the Medieval-looking armour-clad King of Egypt who constantly reminded me of the ghost of the Commendatore from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
The freakish dancing by possessed young women slashing at their own or each other’s wrists and necks didn’t reveal much either. Whatever the cult, the newly elected Captain of the Guard Radamès was certainly part of the drill, slashing at his own wrists with his sword to presumably swear allegiance to king and country.
But at the core of the opera is a fraught love triangle that ought to outperform any superfluousness or extravagance. Its dynamic forces, however, struggled to achieve a binding heartbeat of total conviction. In the title role as the enslaved Ethiopian princess and handmaiden to the King’s daughter Amneris, American soprano Leah Crocetto developed splendidly as the night progressed.
In the opening scene in the hall of the King’s palace, the chemistry in Crocetto’s acting lacked a little bite but by the scene’s big closing aria, Ritorna vincitor, which she sang with resplendent colour and texture, Crocetto was on her way harnessing everything in Aida’s heart and predicament of having fallen in love with Radamès.
Crocetto effortlessly sang through a plush range of beautifully heartfelt notes, reaching melting heights in Act 3’s opening aria, Qui Radamès verra… O patria mia as Aida waits for Radamès on the eve of his marriage to Amneris.
When Crocetto took a rousing curtain call, emotions were clearly evident and it was a joy to welcome her in an Opera Australia debut after having seen her in numerous international performances, including singing a memorably impressive Aida at Seattle Opera in 2018.
Making his Opera Australia debut also was Italian tenor Stefano La Colla as Radamès. Warmth and muscularity in the voice gave La Colla’s Radamès a good degree of presence but the top notes tended to lose patina.
For a good part, La Colla seemed to anticipate rather than be at one with the music as well as appearing physically disengaged from the moment, especially when sharing the little time Radamès and Aida have together in intimacy.
In the final tomb scene, however, La Colla gave a moving performance along with Crocetto despite a directorial flop as Radamès lay in the foreground with Aida standing behind, physically distanced and with zero eye contact.
As Amneris, voluptuously voiced French-Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Gabouri was something phenomenal, oozing with power and magnetism but equally able to portray the Egyptian princess’ heartbreaking vulnerability.
A giant black panther often loomed slyly behind her but Gabouri sang as if needing nothing to accompany an instrument she possesses that was thrilling at every turn, right until the finale when one couldn’t but feel compassion as she stands upon an inverted pyramid that pierces the tomb of the lovers below.
The smaller roles shone with excellent performances, especially that of firm and molten Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov whose high priest Ramfis imparted dignity and leadership. Michael Honeyman was strong in voice and convincing in acting as Aida’s father, the King of Ethiopia, and Gennadi Dubinsky resonated wonderfully from his platform in his armour as the King of Egypt.
Much of the ensemble singing added impact and the glorious Verdi chorus work was nicely calibrated and sumptuously tuneful. Symmetry and order were the general rule in the way the chorus were mobilised and, once again, you could shake your head at some of the choreography.
Down in the pit, conductor Tahu Matheson kept the lid on showiness, opting for a more refined approach in the voluminous passages and giving delicacy equal impact.
Orchestra Victoria was in superb form, as were the six trumpeters stationed from high on the sides of the theatre for Livermore’s more low-key Triumphal March – no live animals but artistically introduced with imagery of a horseman riding through what alludes to the strategic Gorge of Napata made mention of subsequently.
The company’s new Aida is a curious, sometimes seductive, at times distracting concoction of LED imagery, costuming and direction and much more could have been achieved with the story’s love triangle. The audience took it without raucous applause and wasn’t on their feet either.
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 6 May 2021 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 21 May 2021
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: The Cast of Opera Australia’s 2021 production of Aida at Arts Centre Melbourne – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Paul Selar