Costumes as spectacular as the set: Milijana Nikolic as Amneris and Latonia Moore as Aida. Costumes as spectacular as the set: Milijana Nikolic as Amneris and Latonia Moore as Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton
Reviewer rating:
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida
Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point, March 27
The giant, 15-tonne head of Nefertiti towering above Mark Thompson's design has an eye missing, shaped ambiguously to suggest both the ravages of ancient decay and the impact of modern artillery. The setting of Gale Edwards' Aida is not one Egypt but all the Egypts that ever were, littered with antiquities and oil drums and stalked by soldiers who could be Roman centurions, modern security guards or the elite forces of modern theocrats.
This is a visually gorgeous Aida of spectacle – an Aida-with-elephants (on this occasion they aren't actually elephants but let's not spoil the surprise). The symmetry of staging in the flowing opulence of choreographer Lucas Jervies' dance numbers and the large set-piece scenes (notably the famous triumphal march) has a satisfying balance, the implied order delicately undermined by intrusions of the personal. This is, after all, an opera about the clash of civic and private devotion.
For all this, I found it less theatrically involving than Graeme Murphy's delightfully subversive and playful on-stage production, which, if the pattern of previous Handa Opera on the Harbour productions is repeated, Opera Australia will revive next year to encourage new opera samplers into serious indoor addiction.
However, the problem, I suspect, is not that Edwards' splendid spectacle disrupts dramatic engagement, but rather that Tony David Cray's sound design was initially overdone and overbearing, depriving some scenes of the subtlety and variety that is crucial to create intimate dramatic experience. The good news is that this is easily fixed and indeed the second half was much better, with Aida's Act III contemplation on personal and patriotic love, Qui Radamès verra ... O patria mia, drawing on precisely the nuance that had been an absent friend in the first half.
Latonia Moore's voice in the title role has rich complexity, colour and power and deserves greater care in amplification in the trio of Act I and the great chorus scenes of Act II. Similarly tenor Walter Fraccaro as Radames shone in the second half with a forceful, at times fierce brilliance and intensity. Their final duet took maximum licence to linger on the high notes at the opening of the phrase as though, if they held them long enough, they would prise open their tomb to find the path to paradise. In such moments conductor Brian Castles-Onion was endlessly accommodating handling the logistics of outdoor, video-transmitted coordination with skill and the utmost flexibility.
Milijana Nikolic as Amneris grew from brittle jealousy in the first scenes, sung with taut brightness, to deeply human warmth in the later acts. Michael Honeyman as the Ethiopian leader Amonasro captured a sound of aptly defiant freedom and polished strength. David Parkin as the inflexible priest Ramfis and Gennadi Dubinsky as the Egyptian King sang with unyielding firmness in the ensembles. Eva Kong's scene as the Priestess in the first half showed that when the amplification was correctly set, the sound could be comely and coloured, while Benjamin Rasheed's Messenger was tonally direct and penetrating.
The orchestral sound was best in subdued moments such as the overture, where it was free of distortion, while the choral sound for me could tolerate further technical refinement to avoid undue stridency.
Aida is a work that begs for a large canvas and Edwards has filled it with here with gestures of swirling brilliance and boldness.