Friday, February 16, 2018

Settling down to reflect great subtlety, a shimmering Aida opens at Dubai Opera

“Is that the one with the elephants?”, asked a colleague after I said I was off to see Verdi’s Aida at Dubai Opera. As far as I knew, there’d be no elephants but I guaranteed that having - amongst other strengths - a great exponent in the title role, Aida would be remembered for much more than an accompanying circus. That it did, with luxury casting in a shimmering production from Polish National Opera and directed with well-resolved sophistication by Roberto Laganà Manoli.

Act 2, Aida, Polish National Opera Production
American soprano Latonia Moore studded the evening with a powerhouse performance on Wednesday’s opening night in a role she has sung widely and gives stunning breath to. Moore’s vocal heft, dramatic colour and crystal diction all combined in a thoughtful and alluring account of the captured Ethiopian princess as the conflict between love and duty unfolded in the doomed love triangle with the Egyptian military commander Radamès (Rudy Park) and the pharaoh’s daughter Amneris (Anna Lubańska). There’s much to encapsulate in Aida’s interactions with her superior, lover and father but Moore makes each one a genuine and compelling expression of the slave-princess's circumstances.

As a trio of singers who could effortlessly turn on the volume, Act 1, however, was characterised more by a ferocity than subtlety of voice. They did eventually settle, Moore more quickly so. By story’s airless end, within an impressive stylised pyramid as Aida and Radamès walk rearwards in embrace (a clever touch that avoided clumsy lolling death throes), it was easy to shower plaudits on all.

As a robust soldierly Radamès, Park plied through the music with an impressive burning fervour, completely absorbing in the middle and lower domain, though on occasion, a little overextended at the top. There’s little private time Radamès and Aida enjoy but Park and Moore created a formidable pair. The lovers' Act 3 scene outside the Temple of Isis, where Aida had waited to meet with Radamès, was bathed in a moving and richly concocted and thrillingly sung emotive rendezvous.

Most striking below the highest notes, and as much able to sing out with purity and suppleness of tone, Lubańska’s dark, luscious and meaty mezzo-soprano made Amneris a force to be reckoned with. As Aida’s rival, Lubańska’s snaky Amneris isn’t all fire and fury and she could suppress the volume and add remarkable depth of soul when needed. One of the night’s many highlights included Lubańska and Moore’s Act 2 encounter as Amneris draws a confession from Aida that she is in love with Radamès in "Fu la sorte dell'armi a' tuoi funesta". With the incensed Amneris standing tall against a grief-stricken Aida on her knees, power and pity were augmented superbly.

We don’t meet Aida’s father, the King of Ethiopia, until he is brought before the Egyptian people as a prisoner of war well into Act 2. Despite looking like a few years could be added to his makeup, from the first moments Mikołaj Zalasiński made his appearance as Amonasro, his warm, fluid and burnished baritone gushed forth with masterful ease in a near faultless, intelligently crafted depiction of an astute and commanding leader.

Gravelly bass Grzegorz Szostak, as the implacable High Priest Ramfis, tended to sing with more directness without lifting textures from his words. A the other bass, a notably warmer one, Łukasz Konieczny gave polished authority as the King of Egypt. In smaller roles, Jeannette Bożałek brought clear angelic radiance to her offstage Voice of the High Priestess and Adam Zdunikowski administered his notes solidly as the Messenger. For all its rich Verdian chorus work, the Polish National Opera Chorus, particularly the men - even more so the deep resonant purring basses - sang with huge appeal, in excellently balanced parts and wonderful evenness.

Threaded with its triumphant magisterial splendour and dreamy orchestral delicacies, Maestro Patrick Fournillier’s sensitive conducting - showing great care in allowing the singers to rise radiantly above the music - shaped a soundscape of beauty and coherency. At his service, the Polish National Opera Orchestra suffered a handful of opening night jitters that began with unsettling wheezing string playing in the overture but, overall, smoothness and crispness reigned.

Act 4, Aida, Polish National Opera Production
Under Laganà Manoli’s direction, the work’s juxtaposition of intimacy, conflict and pageantry were given eye-catching theatricality as part of the story’s ancient Egyptian setting. Responsible also for the sumptuous sets and costume designs, Laganà Manoli’s overarching control of the stage resulted in a multitude of memorable tableaux, including a tremendous grand spectacle for the Act 2 Triumphal Chorus and Grand March and the act’s finale as Radamès earns Amneris’ hand in marriage. For this, with no elephants or a live animal of any sort, he was assisted by Emil Wesolowski’s atmospheric choreography for an agile troupe of dancers featuring both angular and arabesque forms.

Lofty relief-cut golden and marble pillars framed the stage with two full-width flights of steps that allow ample scope for the large contingent of performers in all their intricately-robed exotic splendour. With hues of opalescent blue and aqua, two raised plinths - providing a focus for solo singing and that could be joined as one - as well as full-height imposing relief-cut golden doors that, when closed, aided more intimate moments, satisfied expectations of the monumental. Further depth was created when the rear wall opened and became a canvas for various projections, including a view out to the pyramids in an overall dazzling but dreamy effect.

Although the popularity of Aida is likely the result of its incorporation and marketability of spectacle, when the stars align in a production that searches the story’s human factors, conservatively approached or not, the effect is ever more overwhelming. In this instance, Laganà Manoli’s scheme succeeds all sides.

Polish National Opera Production
Dubai Opera
Until 17th February

Production Photos: Teatr Wielki

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