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12 July, 2009

Sydney Aida by Graeme Murphy - clever spectacle, adequate singing.

Aida. Sydney Opera House Tuesday 7th July 2009

Dear Colleagues,

The national company has a coup with Aida, one of the classic “ABC’s of Opera”. Along with Boheme and Carmen, these are the operas which impresarios ignore at their peril. After 12 years, Aida is back in Sydney. True to this maxim, there was hardly an empty seat for this Tuesday night opening. Dance supremo Graham Murphy has injected colour, light, movement and thought into the piece. A projected pyramid stands behind a flat illuminated triangle in which much of the intimate action takes place in this great work from 1871.

Other Egyptian motives included the Udjat eye of Horus, falcon wings, sphinx, columns with capitals, papyrus buds and lotus flowers. Some of these were literally cardboard cut-outs in black and white while others were enormous models. There was frequent projection of hieroglyphics onto the set, mostly of the Middle Kingdom classic written script rather than the more impressive coloured raised relief seen on Old Kingdom temples, obelisks and tombs. There were no pharaoh’s cartouches to tell us the period … although this story could have happened at almost any time in Egyptian history - except the 25th dynasty when the Ethiopians put their own southern pharaoh on the Egyptian throne.

American soprano Tamara Wilson sang the title role with flare and verve. She has an effortless and impeccable vocal production. However, at 27 years, this is still a young voice with many more life experiences to add further maturity and deeper expression.

Korean Mr Dongwon Shin passed the ultimate test for the tenor by conquering Celeste Aida. Unlike many tenors, he was more secure at the end than at the beginning. Remarkably, he sang the final words ‘… vicino al sol’ (‘close to the sun’) with a final diminuendo … and then repeated the words an octave lower! I have never heard it sung this way live or on recordings but I was told by one singer this is the way it was intended by Verdi. Mr Shin also maintained his vocal form both for forte contributions as in the big chorus scenes as well as in piano sections such as the final duet, O terra addio.

Ms Nikolic managed the role of Amneris, using her height and stage presence to support her vocal powers. With some clever devices, such as clipping initial notes, she brought herself up to this gigantean role. But Ms Nikolic did not dominate vocal proceedings as should probably be the case in this opera. Some say the opera should be called “Amneris”! It is a shame that the audience was not able to hear a truly great opera singer in this role as before (eg. Cullen, Elkins, Connell, Elms).

Michael Lewis acquitted himself well as Amonasro. This dramatically important role still seems somehow vocally unrewarding. He does not get any of the ‘hit’ tunes, and he is not involved in the opening or closing moments of the drama.

None of the other cast members really shone out … but none was inadequate either. While Mr Shin and Ms Wilson each had an artistic success, it seems intriguing that they were chosen ahead of the numerous Australian singers of comparable or better repute.

English Conductor Richard Armstrong seemed to keep a governor on the tempi, rather like the flow of the Nile. At times one longed for some variation in this measured movement. The AOB orchestra was back, making glorious music in their confined pit, having missed the season opening. They were replaced for the Purcell and Handel works by a baroque ensemble (and THAT is another story). The brass was particularly secure this time around and six of their members played ceremonial trumpets on stage in costume … only to be briefly flummoxed by the sliding ‘people-mover’ which jerked them to a precipitous halt in mid-bar.

The all-essential chorus was well prepared musically and they did major on-stage choreography including synchronised lines of lateral movement.

The production suffered from the dictum ‘when in doubt, add more’ with some aspects being overdone. The use of a conveyor belt at the front of the stage started during the introductory music with Aida gliding across the stage while admiring and caressing a silent and statuesque Radames. This paired moving footway was used for people going in both directions, individually and in groups. Unfortunately, this clever apparatus became a distraction and was overdone. Did they have to justify its installation or its inventor? Other motifs, tricks and devices were used with taste and due reserve. Wings of Horus, Anubis, Thoth and mummy masks were in evidence. The costumes were fittingly sumptuous, featuring leopard skins and gold raiment.

Dance was an integral part of this opera - as originally intended for the Paris opera style. Murphy presented the audience with 8 dancers performing a complex and varied routine of original and tasteful callisthenics at the appropriate musical and dramatic moments. This was very special choreography and superb dancing of the highest order. And it received as large a round of applause as any of the singing.

Like his Turandot, this Aida production by Graeme Murphy will serve the company well as long as they use adequate singers. Once upon a time this company had sufficient resources to mount two parallel star casts for this great work, very largely from their own ranks. Now they cannot muster one. Sign of the times?

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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