Sunday, October 1, 2017

On the Coolangatta sands, Verdi's Aida is dazzlingly brought to life in Opera Australia's Griffith Opera on the Beach

Treated to a clear and calm evening with a background of pre-performance Middle Eastern music and a Pacific Ocean horizon view, Opera Australia's new production of Verdi's Aida promises exoticism to sink the teeth into and sand to dig the feet in. It's Old Kingdom Egypt on the beach at Gold Coast's Coolangatta and it's an experience few barefooted opera-goers would leave unimpressed by. This is the national opera company's Griffith Opera on the Beach, a collaboration between Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University with support from Tourism and Events Queensland (amongst others) and it comes in first-class form.

 Opera Australia's Griffith Opera on the Beach - Aida
On top of there being so much to love about the concept of opera on the beach, director Hugh Halliday's Aida unfolds gloriously on the sands in a musically fulfilling, vocally splendid and boldly presented evening of astutely realised drama in a broadly traditional approach.

Rising above a stepped terrace on which two minor sphinxes demarcate the outer area, two lofty sandstone pylons form a centralised gateway flanked by two 6-metre high statues of seated pharaohs. Set designer David Fleischer's imposing scheme is guided by symmetry and fantastic realism, providing three doorways as entry points on the edifice. Further access is achieved via left and right forecourt sides as well as steps from the sands up to it. Fleischer gives Halliday much to work with. Halliday obliges with rewarding results, commendably conveying the expected pageantry with vivid and uncomplicated effectiveness as he carefully juxtaposes a large community chorus (alongside 7 members of the Opera Australia Chorus) with scenes of dramatic intimacy and reserves of sensitivity.

Two well-behaved camels transport their cargo appropriately. Local surf lifesavers assist in presenting the spoils of war (a smiling nod to the oddity of it) in Act 2's famous moment as part of a gorgeously rendered and sung triumphal celebration of victory,  Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside / "Glory to Egypt, to Isis!" and Elise May's dynamic choreography of her 10 flexible dancers from Expressions Dance Company weaves itself eye-catchingly without intrusion on proceedings. The creative picture is enhanced by Anna Cordingley's stylised ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian costumes that punch their shimmering beauty through with vibrancy and cohesiveness and David Walter's lighting design that captures everything from the colossal to the focused with exciting and evocative moods.

Anna-Louise Cole as Aida
Fine pageantry aside - fireworks included - the turns and tension of the story of forbidden love between the Ethiopian slave princess Aida and the captain of the Egyptian army Radamès are skilfully driven by a strong cast of soloists.

Signalling what should be more big roles to come, soprano Anna-Louise Cole is exquisite in the title role as Aida (which she shares with Natalie Aroyan), depicting her with an affecting multi-dimensional spirit that captures everything from the gently feminine to the defiant and coercive. Cole sings with highly attractive vocal richness, expression and poise while exhibiting an easy comfort across a broad range to elevate the demands on every account. If there was just one moment to keep close in Cole's performance, it would be the burning tenderness brought to Act 3's Qui Radamès verra .. O patria mia / "Oh, my dear country!", in which Aida waits for Radamès outside the Temple of Isis on the eve of his wedding to Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt. The crowd acknowledged it enthusiastically.

Arnold Rawls as Radamès
In fact, Act 3's entirety is a riveting and emotion-charged highlight both in direction and delivery, centring around Aida's cornered heart that faces loyalty to her father Amonasro and love for Radamès.

As Radamès, robust tenor Arnold Rawls powerfully invokes the warrior spirit and gives it unwavering vocal muscularity in a Goliathan and most convincing outing. But Rawls, just as marvellously, expresses Radamès heart in passionately warm tones in his love for Aida and for country, soaring through Act 1's Celeste Aida / "Heavenly Aida" in a thrilling opening aria full of melting resonance and command. Showing both the authoritative and affectionately paternal sides of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, resonant and dusky baritone Michael Honeyman is the third in the trio of best performances.

Although at ease and beauty in top-range rage with her lush, dark mezzo-soprano, Sian Pendry's angulated-acted and overwrought-directed Amneris (whose role she shares with Milijana Nikolic) becomes an overdramatised distraction. There's pleasing firmness and openness in Gennadi Dubinsk's High Priest Ramfis and heavy bass solidity in David Hibbarb's steadfast King of Egypt. Two minor roles are filled impressively with tenor Stuart Haycock's strident-voiced Messenger and Leah Thomas as the delicately sweet-sounding High Priestess. The Opera Australia Community Chorus, in a range of roles from Egyptian soldiers and Ethiopian slaves to priests and priestesses, move with confidence and sing in excellent form.

Michael Honeyman as Amonasro
Behind the scenes keeping Verdi's score in eloquent and resplendent form, conductor Tahu Matheson leads an outstanding team from Opera Australia Orchestra and Griffith University student musicians. The contrasts between expert billowing woodwind and crisp brass playing brilliantly compliment the warm string section, which the cellos and double basses support with beautifully cushioned passages. Much credit goes to sound designer Adrian Riddell in attaining such high standards in the acoustic execution of music and song in an outdoor setting.

In Act 4's final scene in which Radamès is sealed in the vault of the Temple of Vulcan and where Aida had previously snuck into, the lighting on the sandstone central gateway is evocative enough to make a convincingly airless end to a night in which not a breath of wind blew to drive the sand. The suffocation is palpable, the effect breathless as Cole's Aida and Rawls' Radamès unite in death. And after the scaffold, fibreglass, gantries and low-backed beach chairs are removed, the picture-book-brought-to-dazzling-life quality of this Aida will remain for those who took the journey.

The local community of Coolangatta is waiting for the next project. So will those who'll want to visit again from far and wide. Griffith Opera on the Beach, @OperaAustralia #OperaBeach, is one of the national companies great and outreaching endeavours.

Opera Australia, Griffith Opera on the Beach
Coolangatta Beach, Gold Coast
Until 30th September.

Production Photographs: Scott Belzner

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