Plundered Treasure: Aida from the Opéra national de Paris

Verdi – Aida

Aida – Sondra Radvanovsky
Il Re – Soloman Howard
Amneris – Ksenia Dudnikova
Radamès – Jonas Kaufmann
Amonasro – Ludovic Tézier
Ramfis – Dmitry Belosselskiy
Un Messaggero – Alessandro Liberatore
Sacerdotessa – Roberta Mantegna

Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Michele Mariotti.
Stage director – Lotte de Beer.  Video director – François-René Martin.

Opéra national de Paris, Opéra Bastille, Paris, France.  Thursday, February 18th, 2021.  Streamed via Arte Concert.

This new production of Aida, by Netherlandic director Lotte de Beer, was billed as an attempt to decolonize a somewhat problematic work.  De Beer’s staging is far from the Cecil B De Mille, all-singing, all-dancing epics that this work has been subjected to over the years, and instead gives us a considered view of the opera and its history.  There is most definitely a case to be made for a post-colonial view of Aida and we are certainly in need of one.  Though, I’m afraid to say I’m not convinced that de Beer’s is the staging we’ve been waiting for.  Rather it’s one that has some good ideas, but these are outweighed by the less good.

Photo: © OndP / Vincent Pontet

De Beer sets the work in around the time of its composition.  We see the Egyptians as a society that stores the plunder of their colonial adventures in a museum – the Act 1 ceremony to Phtà appears to be taking place at a vernissage of the latest loot.  De Beer stages the triumphal scene with the chorus in black costumes standing to the left and right of a central stage, where the ballet recreates scenes of war and colonization.  It all feels rather heavy handed, with a focus on the ceremonial that, although this is a work with big choral scenes, it’s also one that focuses on the conflicts between individuals – the forbidden love, the jealous powerful woman, or the conflict between duty and love.  Instead, de Beer gives us something that never seems to want to bring us in, to understand characters’ motivations, to ask questions of ourselves and our roles in perpetuating colonial stereotypes.  Rather, this is a highly visual staging that keeps us at an arm’s length and remains emotionally cold.

Photo: © OndP / Vincent Pontet

An impression heightened by the fact that Aida and Amonasro are portrayed by marionettes, manipulated by three marionettists, with Sondra Radvanovsky and Ludovic Tézier following them around the stage, and Jonas Kaufmann’s Radamès and Ksenia Dudnikova’s Amneris engaging with the marionette rather than the singer.  Similarly, in the Act 3 scene between Aida and Amonasro, the marionettes engaged with each other, as the two singers sang across the stage at each other.  I suspect this was conceived by de Beer as a way of illustrating the Ethiopians lack of agency and their otherness in this colonial society.  Perhaps, it was to show that those artifacts in glass cases in museums were once real people, with real life and death dilemmas.  Instead, rather than giving us a means of sympathizing with Aida’s and Amonasro’s situations, it again keeps us apart from them, it depersonalizes these characters and robs them of their humanity – surely the opposite of what a post-colonial staging of this work would want to achieve.  Furthermore, an unfortunate angle in François-René Martin’s camerawork during the Act 2 apartment scene, made it appear that Aida’s marionette was manually pleasuring Amneris.  It would surely have been possible to portray Aida and Amonasro’s otherness through costume alone – the fact that both Radvanovsky and Tézier were dressed in simple, all-black costumes, compared to the more ornate ones worn by others, would surely have been enough to illustrate this.  Unfortunately, the use of the marionettes reinforced this effect of dehumanizing coldness that dominates the staging.  A shame because my only other previous encounter with de Beer’s work, a superb and deeply emotional Trittico in Munich, showed her to be a perceptive and empathetic director.

Photo: © OndP / Vincent Pontet

Given the current sanitary situation, the opera’s choruses were masked, while the principals sang without and engaged fully with each other around the parameters of the staging.   Musically, it ranged from excellent to decent to disappointing.   Excellent were Radvanovsky’s Aida and Tézier’s Amonasro.  Radvanovsky brought her years of bel canto training and experience to her singing of the title role.  Even within the confines of de Beer’s staging, she managed to create an emotionally engaged interpretation, founded on an impeccable sense of line, even legato and magically floated pianissimi.  Her ‘patria mia’ was sung in endless phrases and she soared up to an exquisite high C.  Radvanovsky’s is one of those voices that has to be heard live to appreciate its sheer resonance and the way that it carries through the house.  It made me long to be able to experience her instrument live, soaring over the ensemble in the triumphal scene.  She also gave us some delicately exquisite singing in the final scene, filling her music with tender farewells to a life that was.  Tézier’s Amonasro was sung in a firm column of sound, the voice absolutely integrated from top to bottom, all of his music sung without a hint of strain.  It did sound that he needed a few moments for the voice to take wing, with intonation just coming into focus in his first entrance.  But this was true Verdi baritone singing the voice big, bold and never succumbing to the urge to hector.

Photo: © OndP / Vincent Pontet

The good came through in Dmitry Belosselskiy’s Ramfis and Soloman Howard’s King.  Belosselskiy has a wonderfully rounded and liquid bass with seemingly unlimited depth.  Howard is immensely promising.  He’s still young, in a voice type that blooms later, but the voice itself already has handsome warmth and will surely fill out even more in time.  A special mention also for Roberta Mantegna’s Sacerdotessa, who sang her lines with lyrical beauty of tone.

Photo: © OndP / Vincent Pontet

Then there were Kaufmann and Dudnikova.  I have no doubt that Kaufmann’s many fans will be delighted that he was there and his performance recorded for posterity.  I must regret that my impression was much more equivocal.  His tenor now sounds rather tired and he frequently resorted to crooning both in ‘celeste Aida’ and in the final scene.  Emission sounded bumpy and he sang consistently flat.  I did fear after his opening number that he wouldn’t last the course.  He did, but it didn’t make for easy listening, it pains me to say.  Given how many excellent tenors could use a break right now, one might have wished the Opéra had shown a little more imaginativeness in casting here.  Dudnikova is the owner of a very attractive mezzo.  She has a formidable chest register and she isn’t afraid to use it.  The middle also has wonderful sheen and emissions are even.  The top is rather tight, however.  Her singing felt anonymous, leaving this listener with a sense that she wasn’t engaging with the text, the words learnt as if by rote rather than lived.  I longed for her to inject some personality into her singing and actually engage with the text, to make us feel that she understood what was being sung and felt.  That said, with the quality of her instrument, if she can learn to engage more with the text, she could become a very useful artist.

Photo: © OndP / Vincent Pontet

The choruses were on enthusiastic form, the gents firm of tone, while the ladies vibrated generously.  I must admit that this is the best thing I’ve heard Michele Mariotti do.  His conducting flowed logically, tempi felt well chosen, were relatively swift, and attack was generally very tight.  Yes, there were a couple of abrupt gear changes here and there, but the quality of the playing he obtained from the orchestra, and the tempi that felt just right, made for a very satisfying interpretation.

Photo: © OndP / Vincent Pontet

This was something of a curate’s egg of a performance.  There were some extremely satisfying solo performances and some less so, it was well conducted, and the house forces played and sang on the level that one would expect at this address.  The staging was disappointing.  While I appreciated de Beer’s attempt to decolonize the work, it did feel that her staging kept us at a distance and failed to allow us to engage with the characters.  It was certainly thought provoking, but I longed for much more emotional engagement with the individuals within.  Worth seeing for Radvanovsky, Tézier, the two basses, and Mariotti’s conducting.

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