The Canadian Opera Company opened its 2010-2011 season with a surefire crowd pleaser –Verdi’s Aida to be followed by the more adventurous choice of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice.
Even the greenest neophyte has heard “Celeste Aida” or the Triumphal March and most opera fans have seen a production of Aida which probably included a zoofull of animals like a tiger, an elephant, a horse and a camel. In fact those animals were featured in a production by Royal Opera Canada in Mississauga a few years ago. The eternal love triangle, a palace, a couple of temples and the banks of the Nile, all add up to grand opera on a massive scale.
Director Tim Albery will have none of this. His conception of Aida is of a modern drama, in a poor country where human emotion may be paramount and the paraphernalia of grand opera are chucked. The Pharaoh’s palace becomes a rather shabby conference room with a pine boardroom table and a few cheap chairs. The Egyptians wear rather drab suits and the army officers wear ordinary not to say shabby uniforms.
You are expecting a Triumphal March? Forget it. You will hear the music but there will be nothing on stage to correspond to the thrilling trumpets. You imagine Aida, the Ethiopian princess who is the prisoner of Princess Amneris of Egypt as a beautiful woman for whom Radames, the powerful Egyptian commander falls in love? Forget that too. This Aida is a frump, dressed in an ugly dress and an uglier jacket. She is a defeated woman and all her body language indicates a mouse rather than a princess. Why would Radames fall in love with her?
Every director wants to and must put his imprimatur on a production of a staple of the opera house. You don’t want the same production with different animals walking across the stage for the few minutes of the Triumphal March. But there must be a correlation between the obvious content of the opera and the specific conception of the director. That correlation simply does not exist in the current production.
But all is not lost. The COC has much better luck in its singers than in Albery’s quirky approach. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is an outstanding Aida. She has a lustrous voice and achieves emotional and vocal splendour. She is marvelous in the long “Ritorna vincitor” and extraordinarily moving in “O patria mia.”
Tenor Rosario La Spina handled the role of Radames with self-assurance but with his bulky figure and military uniform he looked more like a tin pot dictator than a romantic lover who betrayed his country for the love of a woman. When the voice works, we overlook physical appearance. La Spina’s vocal prowess more than makes up for his lack of the ideal physical accoutrements for the role.
Jill Grove’s Amneris is a full-sized girl, as they say, but she does get a better wardrobe than Aida and she has a full-sized mezzo-soprano voice that stands her well. Her big moment comes near the end of the opera where she goes through the gamut of emotions. She wants Radames to die, she loves him, she wants him saved, she wishes he loved her. Grove gives a tour de force performance.
Baritone Scott Hendricks made a dramatic Amonasro while Alain Coulomb was a good King of Egypt. Phillip Ens was a sonorous Ramfis. The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra was conducted by Johannes Debus.
Hildegard Bechtler’s sets were, in keeping with Albery’s conception, drab with couches being pushed on and off the stage. The Egyptians may be able to whip the Ethiopians but as a country they cannot afford a bit of decent furniture even for the King.
And a final note on directorial choices. Aida sneaks into the underground chamber where her lover will be left to die for his treachery. Radames is unrepentant for his betrayal of his country and his love for Aida. They are left to die and they sing the beautifully melodic duet “O terra, addio.” Amneris is seen above the chamber and the three scenically make a triangle. Well and good, but would two lovers who are about to die for their love stand some fifteen feet apart? How about a final embrace at least, instead of the two collapsing to the ground as if they were strangers?
Aida by Giuseppe Verdi opened on October 2 and will be performed twelve times on various dates until November 5, 2010 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca