Opéra National de Paris
Banners waving: Py's staging of Aida at the Paris Opera
© Opéra National de Paris/Elisa Haberer 2014
The Paris Opera celebrated Giuseppe Verdi's two hundredth birthday on October 10 with a new production of Aida, directed by Olivier Py (his second new production of the season) and conducted by music director Philippe Jordan. Aida has not been seen at the Paris Opera since 1968, when a certain Leontyne Price appeared in the title role.
While nobody was expecting Py to produce an elephant-driven spectacular, it was hoped that he would explore the conflicting personal relationships that lie at the heart of the opera. Having rejected Tut antiquity, the producer and his designer, Pierre-André Weitz, chose to emphasize political struggle over personal relationships. Verdi wrote many operas in his youth with overt or covert political messages, but for Aida this was not his principal consideration. On hearing that Wagner might be commissioned for the job, Verdi took up the Egyptian Khedive's lucrative commission, basing his work on a libretto inspired by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. The result was a work of post-Meyerbeer grandeur with an Orientalist setting of carefully researched local color. Weitz's golden split-level set had some grandeur, with "Victor Emmanuel Re d'Italia" boldly emblazoned to confirm the Risorgimento reference. Italy's unification thus became confusingly mingled with Egyptian and Ethiopian history. Py broadened his references to include Shoah victims and even some hooded Ku Klux Klan-style judges. Audience patience was stretched, and the appearance of yet another group of muscular soldiers in military fatigues engendered the first signs of the unprecedented storm of protest that would greet Py at the final curtain. The love triangle and the fragile father–daughter relationship at the heart of the work were sidelined. The principals failed to make eye contact at crucial moments, contenting themselves with unconvincing stereotypical gestures. Banners in French against immigrants were waved, janitors miserably polished the golden set, even a military tank rolled onstage: the oppressive political message was clear, but Verdi's essential humanity was left unexplored in favor of what the producer saw as the work's subtext.
Fortunately, Jordan produced playing and singing of glowing beauty from the orchestra and chorus, with an attention to detail rarely heard locally in this repertoire. However, despite a few attempts to whip up energy by accelerating in some of the orchestral play-outs, this remained a stubbornly symphonic and dramatically reserved approach.
Marcelo Álvarez does not possess a voice of heroic proportions, but as Radamès the tenor phrased with care and sustained a firm line, gracing the title role with plangent soft singing. Oksana Dyka displayed a voice of opulent power, riding the ensembles with ease and crowning "O patria mia" with a secure top C. However, the soprano seemed incapable of sustaining a line at less than full volume, compromising much of her music. Luciana D'Intino, as Amneris, faced a different problem. On opening night, her mid-range was all but mute, and though she rose excitingly to the high climaxes of the judgment scene, this was inevitably an incomplete performance. A firm line was also absent from the singing of big-voiced Sergey Murzaev, as Amonasro, in a turn spoilt by uncommunicative Italian and no sense of binding the opening notes of "Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente" into a musical phrase. More stylish contributions came from the cavernous but occasionally ill-tuned Ramfis of bass Roberto Scandiuzzi and the gruff-voiced King of Carlo Cigni.
STEPHEN J. MUDGE
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