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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - Opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt - Gennadi Dubinski (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Milijana Nikolic (mezzo); Radames, captain of the guards - Walter Fraccaro (tenor); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia - Michael Honeyman (baritone); Aida, his daughter - Latonia Moore (soprano); Ramfis, High priest - David Parkin (bass)
Australian Opera Ballet, Chorus and Orchestra/Brian Castles-Onion
Handa Opera, at Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney Harbour, Australia
Stage Director: Gale Edwards; Costume Designer: Mark Thompson; TV and Video Director: Cameron Kirkpatrick
rec. live, 14, 16 April 2015
Sound format: Dolby Digital 5.1. Dolby Digital Stereo
Picture format: 16:9. Widescreen
Introductory note in English
Subtitles in English
ABC CLASSICS DVD 0762928 [141:00]

Location, location, location was Verdi's dominant thought as he, after some persuasion, took up his pen to compose Aida. As an appendix to this review I give some details of the background to Verdi accepting the commission to write Aida, particularly what was demanded of him and in turn what he demanded as his fee.

As far as this production is concerned, location here seems to be the dominant theme rather than Verdi's vision or that of the Khedive of Egypt who originally commissioned the work. The performance is set in the open air at Mrs. Macquaries Point, Sydney Harbour. The view is to the fore and is seen from time to time during the proceedings. It comprises the lit-up Sydney Harbour Bridge, likewise the 'sails' of Sydney Opera House and the twinkling lights of the city itself. Hardly ancient Egypt, but at least it takes ones mind and eye off some of the banal proceedings on the stage. An eighteen metre tall head, with one eye gouged out, commands the stage. I gather it weighed in at fifteen tonnes. Getting it there must have been a feat of engineering achieved at no little cost; it seems to have no practical function.

Aida has the potential to be one of the most visually spectacular of operas. However, in terms of physical facilities and spectacle this production has few virtues to go alongside its harbour location. Fabulous multi-coloured costumes for the ladies, hardly period but not to worry — compared with the men they look great. In the great act two triumphal scene, (CHs.10-12) and with Verdi's magnificent music at its core, the entrance of the victorious Egyptian army with all the spoils of war, sees Radames on a camel (CH.10). Like his soldiers he is in modern army uniform, in his case it is formal dress. Regrettably he looks much like a throwback to Mussolini or Franco. The carriers of the spoils of war are also in modern black suits — pallbearers at a funeral. Where is the costume cohesion? Frankly it does not exist. The dancers are hardly in unison either, whilst the firework display is just vulgar in the context of Verdi's opera.

Of necessity in the open air the singing has to be miked. The orchestra is not seen. The amplified music is less than impressive lacking the dynamism and vitality that other open-air venues achieve. Like the voices it is flat and diffuse. On the rostrum Brian Castles-Onion's interpretation is lyrical rather than dramatic, with his pacing and dynamics supporting the singers well. Therein is the biggest drawback of this issue. With one notable exception, the cast is distinctly provincial with the Radames of Walter Fraccaro not even that. His singing is raw-toned and his effort on the final note of Celeste Aida (CH.3) is distinctly painful on the ear. If he had read his score or he had been required to follow what Verdi wrote, he would have respected the composer's intentions and should at least have attempted the softer diminuendo the composer stipulated. Instead he attempts to belt out the final note, a virility symbol that has become the practice of some tenors, and fails. As Amneris, the princess besotted with Radames, Milijana Nikolic is adequate. Michael Honeyman as Aida's father and the two basses, the high Priest Ramfis sung by David Parkin and Gennadi Dubinsky as the King, are decidedly ho-hum. The only quality singing among the soloists is by the afro-american Latonia Moore. She has sung at both New York's Met and London's Covent Garden, even if she is not yet the lirico spinto soprano of first choice at those venues. She sings with excellent vocal expression, diction and variety of vocal colour. She can also act with conviction. Without her quality, the evening would have been a disaster for anyone but an operatic ingénue. With Opera Australia putting its name in the credits, and the money spent on sets and costumes, I hardly think that would be the objective. It is, however, the unwelcome outcome.

Appendix: The genesis of Aida, its writing and the sets for the premiere in Egypt
After the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1867, where Verdi had a significant success with his grand opera Don Carlos at the Paris Opéra, his friend Camille Du Locle, Director of the Opéra Comique, wrote to him from Thebes extolling the wonders of Egypt. At that stage, Egypt was in the process of massive change and development under Khedive Ismael who had seen Verdi's Don Carlos during his visit to the 1867 Great Exhibition. Meanwhile, after ten years construction, under the direction of Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Suez Canal opened on 17 November 1869. In advance, and to celebrate the opening, the Khedive had an opera house built in Cairo. It opened on 1 November of that year with performances of Verdi's Rigoletto.

Shortly after the events in Cairo, Du Locle visited Verdi and told the composer that the Khedive Ismael wanted him to write an opera on an Egyptian theme for performance at the new opera house. Verdi turned the request down, repeating his refusal when in Paris the following spring. Du Locle was undeterred and sent Verdi a twenty four-page synopsis by Auguste Mariette, a French Egyptologist in the employ of the Khedive. The synopsis was full of scenic detail. Stimulated by the synopsis, and also, perhaps that Du Locle had been authorised to approach Gounod or Wagner if he continued to prove reluctant, Verdi wrote to Du Locle on 2 June 1870 setting out his terms. These stipulated his control and ownership of the libretto, and that he, Verdi, retained all rights except for performances in Egypt. He also stipulated a fee of 150,000 francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of the work. This was four times the fee Verdi had received for Don Carlos. The terms were accepted by Mariette to Du Locle on 10 June. The fee made Verdi the highest paid composer ever.

The Khedive stipulated that the opera was to be purely ancient Egypt with the sets to be based on historical accounts and costumes to be designed after the archaeological bas-reliefs of upper Egypt (see account). Mariette knew what the Khedive wanted and said that no effort would be spared in this respect with the mise-en-scène as splendid as one could imagine. The message was that the viceroy does things in a grand style. Mariette travelled to Paris from Egypt to supervise the construction of the set and costumes ready for the premiere in Cairo scheduled for January 1871, the La Scala performances was to follow a few weeks later.

The Khedive did not merely want the theme to reflect Egyptian history, but to be accurate in all details of scenery. To this effect, and keen to obey the Khedive, Mariette provided these to Verdi along with detailed sketches of the costumes, finishing them in brilliant watercolour. Verdi commissioned the construction of the sets in Paris, with the premiere planned for December 1870. So keen was he to achieve the greatest historical accuracy in his music the composer asked Du Locle to gather information from Mariette about the sacred dances of the Egyptian priestesses. Verdi was intent on an opera of spectacle and ballet as though he were writing a grand opera for the Paris Opéra.

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray. On 19 July 1870, with the sets and costumes near completion in Paris, Emperor Napoleon, almost without warning, declared war on Prussia. Most Parisians thought the French would crush the Germans in a week or two but on 1 September the Prussians defeated the French at Sedan, captured the bulk of the French army and took the Emperor himself prisoner. By mid-September the Prussians had reached Versailles, and on 20 September they surrounded and blockaded the capital. The siege of Paris had begun, whilst inside were the sets and costumes for the premiere of Aida in Cairo. The Prussians saw this as an irrelevance. The consequences were that Aida was not actually premiered in Cairo until Christmas Eve 1871. This delay also caused the postponement of the Italian premiere at La Scala as the contract stipulated that the first performances of the opera would be given in the Cairo Opera House. Verdi did not travel to Egypt, but he was widely acclaimed at the La Scala premiere.

Robert J. Farr