Latonia Moore and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Aida and Radamès in Tatjana Gürbaca's production of Verdi's opera in Zurich
Monica Rittershaus/Opernhaus Zürich
Monica Rittershaus/Opernhaus Zürich
Why is it that Victor Hugo's Roi s'Amuse is forgotten today, while Verdi's Rigoletto, adapted from Hugo's drama, continues to play to full houses around the world? Clearly, it's the dramatic force of Verdi's music that makes us willingly suspend our disbelief. Zurich Opera's new production of Verdi's Aida (seen March 13) forces one to look again at the relationship between drama and music.
This production is very much the work of an artist who conceives of Aida as a "director's opera." Tatjana Gürbaca sets the scene in what seemed to be roughly the 1960s; the King of Egypt is a dictator, with Ramfis and the priests as his sidekicks. They are a brutish group of would-be alpha males — strikingly similar to the Duke of Mantua and his courtiers in the same director's current production of Rigoletto. Acts I and II are set in a cheap living room downstage with a zigzag corridor of tulle netting leading to an upstage area. Acts III and IV take place in a diner-like room (presumably in the same building) reminiscent of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.
The very limited stage area available to the singers meant that in Act II, scene 2 — the so-called triumphal scene — the Grand March took place offstage, and the celebratory trumpets were drowned out by the orchestral accompaniment in the pit. Poorly-acted horrors and degradations of war were flashed on and off upstage. The glamour and brassiness of the music — which, like it or not, are an essential part of Aida — were nowhere reflected in the stage business. Small numbers of Egyptians and Ethiopians moved cautiously around the cramped stage. The usually excellent chorus was frequently out of sync with the orchestra, presumably because they were unable to see the conductor's beat. It was impossible to distinguish victors from vanquished and sympathizers.
Overall, the main problem with the production was the clear absence of confidence on the part of soloists and chorus in movement, gestures and expression. It was impossible to believe either in them or in the fate of two countries at war. The drama became diminished, petty and inept.
The one glowing exception to this malaise was the Aida of Latonia Moore. She managed to imbue the rather one-dimensional character of Aida with a credible personality, and she sang gloriously. Hers is a warm voice with full, creamy tone and seemingly effortless power. Her two big solos, as well as her contributions to her duets, are what remain in the memory as highlights of the evening. Aleksandrs Antonenko had the power for Radamès's heroics but applied it indiscriminately. Conversely, Veronica Simeoni (standing in for Iano Tamar, who had withdrawn from this production) lacked the power to dominate the role of Amneris. Andrzej Dobber was a stand-and-deliver Amonasro.
Despite the occasional lack of understanding between the artists onstage and those in the orchestra pit, the Philharmonia Zurich played at its usual high standard, revealing Verdi's orchestration in all its glory, from chamber-music delicacy to overwhelming outbursts of power and energy, all under the knowledgeable direction of Fabio Luisi. Some of the moments of greatest pleasure in this disappointing evening were to be gleaned by simply closing one's eyes and listening to the orchestra telling us what Verdi had to say.
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