Monday, March 30, 2015

Soprano Latonia Moore's Aida outshines a brazenly spectacular production on Sydney Harbour

Triumphal Scene: Photo by Hamilton Lund
Big! Everything about Handa and Opera Australia's new harbour-side production of Aida in Sydney is big. It begs the question, just how brazenly spectacular does opera need to be? This time, Opera Australia seems to say big enough to allow the art of opera to be usurped by the event it forms part of. Unlike the event's more tasteful predecessors, this Aida reflects an off-course Mardi Gras-parading veneer of tongue-in-cheek glamour. Sydney already has such an event and it's repeated annually on Oxford Street.

On opening night, Act I began with such problematic, brutish volume that I imagined the whole world was witnessing the same uncomfortable experience and, quite irrationally, that the future of opera was being compromised. In the opera's first great trio, "Vieni, o diletta, appressati", when Amneris, notices Radamès' disturbed behaviour as Aida enters and suspects Aida as her rival, Verdi's magnificence was undetectable.

Once you get used to the sound, entertainment value for money comes quickly (and the food and drink options are happily not over-priced) but for all its spectacularity, the most alluring aspect that drags you into the mystique of opera is the brilliance of American soprano Latonia Moore's performance as Aida in a role she is making her own on the world's great opera stages.

Director Gale Edwards blends ancient Egypt with the modern and fantastical in a world of military pomp to produce both an alien and overwhelming place sprinkled with refined images of present-day references to power and war. Dealing with the almost 100 stage performers in the roles of priests, priestesses, soldiers Ethiopians slaves and prisoners, Egyptians, dancers and camels (one brief appearance in the Triumphal Scene carrying Radamès returning victorious over the Ethiopians), Edwards guides this world with symmetrical picture perfection throughout. But despite the layers and the stage's breadth, it feels un-inspiringly restrained and Lucas Jervies' eclectic choreography (reaching ludicrous heights in an Ethiopian female-slaves' can-can) only mirrors it further. After Act II's fireworks were over, a 30-minute interval made the return to your seat feel almost unnecessary but Acts III and IV actually brought greater closer-at-hand dramatic relief and a sense of reward.

Looming over set and costume designer Mark Thompson's stage is the monumental bust of Nefertiti, an 18 metre high centrepiece referencing the 3,300-year-old 48-centimetre high limestone bust discovered in 1912. Nefertiti guards vast reserves of Egyptian oil, one eye blasted out in a clever extrapolation of the diminutive statue's missing left eye. Nefertiti rotates to reveal a grand altar/throne to set the scene for the solemn ceremonies at the Temple of Vulcan and the later glittering Triumphal Scene. Thank the heavens there were no other moving parts but her blown-out eye provided a poignant ending to the opera as Amneris, regretful of her actions, weeps in song.

How far Thompson let his responsibilities trickle down is not exactly known but it seems a gifted drag-queen had some involvement. Tonnes of glittering colour and copious amounts of fabric in costumes of all creative persuasion inspired by ancient Egyptian, Ethiopian and 20th century military uniforms dazzle the eye. Just about everyone gets to wear a cape.

Milijana Nikoloic and Latonia Moore: Photo by Prudence Upton
Rising above all, Latonia Moore brought much appreciated restfulness and intimacy with her first aria "Ritorna vincitor", setting herself immediately apart from everything and everyone around her. Moore delivered a performance of subliminal vocal and dramatic beauty, only minutely tarnished by a few miss-matched aspirations and a whopping costume and its bright yellow headdress resembling a bursting vacuum dustbag. Moore's full, dark chest voice, scintillating highs and controlled, piercingly sustained notes intoxicated. The pinnacle of her performance came in her Act III opening aria as Aida waits for  Radamès on the eve of his marriage to Amneris in an ominous farewell-like song to the man and country she loves in "Qui Radamès verra...O patria mia". Alone on stage, under the rippling lilac light across Nefertiti, Moore's scene captured the inexplicable beauty of opera, far outstripping all extravagances of the night. Matt Scott's reliably atmospheric lighting demonstrated the grandeur of simplistic effects.

As a steely Amneris, Milijana Nikolic exhibits a rich, deeply luscious mezzo in a performance which moved from coldly statuesque to one of emotive force to compete with her rival Aida for Radamès' heart. Both princesses outshone an overall satisfyingly, not exceptionally-cast ensemble.

Gennadi Dubinsky as the King of Egypt and David Parkin as the cobra-backed High Priest were appropriately authoritative and fervently voiced. As Aida's father Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, Michael Honeyman acted more with heroic charm than that of a captive's urgency, his clean, youthful baritone needing just a little more grit. Eva Kong added attractive brightness and purity in the role of the High Priestess and the Opera Australia Chorus sang with a well-rehearsed majesty.

Walter Fraccaro: Photo by Prudence Upton
But the task of leading the Egyptians to war appeared too great for Walter Fraccaro's Radamès, who appeared one-dimensional and disengaged, firing little chemistry with the slave princess he presumably is madly in love with. Fraccaro was most disappointing given the great experience he has in the role. In voice, Fraccaro displays power to impress but expressive range was lacking and his upper range lacked finesse. However, Fraccaro finally delivered the goods to convince, bursting forth with conviction in his Act IV duet with Nikolic as Radamès refuses to defend himself after the discovery of his rendezvous with Aida despite Amneris' plea in "Già i Sacerdoti adunansi".

Conductor Brian Castles-Onion and the musicians of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra were doing a stellar job keeping the colour afloat, expectedly but disappointingly out of site from somewhere below stage, but boastful sound transmission to the more than 200 speakers pummelled much of the first two acts prior to interval.

After the cast, musicians and creative team took their bows, more fireworks rocked the harbour. I'm not sure if I missed anything else after that.

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