This was one of the most saught-after performances, and without doubt, the hottest ticket of the summer opera festivals season. A new production of “Aida”, to be conducted by renowned Verdian specialist Riccardo Muti, and starring Anna Netrebko in her role debut, supported by equally strong cast – numerous reviews were pouring in immediately after the premiere, and the opinions differed significantly. Thus, coming for the second performance, I had some expectations towards the production itself, but consciously left a lot of free space to absorb and enjoy the evening.
The production is directed by Iranian visual artist and director Shirin Neshat, this being her first attempt to dive into operatic world. She openly admits, that her previuous exposure to western classical music has been almost non existant, and that she approached Verdi opera more from libretto perspective, seeing intially love tragedy and complex dynamic relationship betweeen three main protagonists versus religious fanatics, political groups and the authoritarian power exemplified by the King. This allows typical Verdian grand-opera to be coverted into more intimate “kammerspiele” and still keep all dramatic conflicts and topicality at the surface while focusing on personal tragedy and challenges. Therefore production clearly stays clear from traditional stereotypes used for Aida – no fancy belly dancers, elephants or camels on stage, – the groups are transformed into mixed religion clergy, dominated by Greek or Russian Orthodox with hints of judaism and islam influences, the government is like factory made puppet collection dressed in westernised suits inspired by Turkey or Georgia, while women chorus members are on stage either as orthodox nuns or golden gown-dressed high society representatives (costumes by Tatyana van Walsum). The costume for the main protagonist Aida is actually the same bluish dress with Swarowski elements changing between acts and occasional shawl, while Amneris has luxury of five differently colored dresses impress: yellow for power, red for love and hate, green for hope, white for sorrow, and black for mourning. The “ethiopian” tribe can be distinguished by white mark on their face and the similar bluish frazzle.
The stage is dominated by huge white rotating block, which easily transforms into separate and joined shapes, allowing to avoid any disturbing stage hands involvement between scenes. The stage design by Christian Schmidt is smart, but not innovative – while it fits into concept perfectly well and provides opportunity to use also video projections (Nile scene was the most impressive!). The ballet scenes Shirin Neshat converted into additional layer of meaning, introducing skull-wearing characters representing dark intent of fanaticism.
To wrap up the staging and direction part, one of the main shortcomings was obvious underdirection of singers, since most of their acting consisted from traditional hand- raising and delivering their vocal part from a predefined spot – with some exceptions, notably by Mrs. Netrebko.
The cast is unquestionably one of the best you can assemble for nowadays to make the performance the bestseller even before the premiere night. The ensemble all together were blending musically perfectly well, each strong performer complementing others, and I believe Riccardo Muti ensured this stage chemistry happened.
Anna Netrebko on her role debut as Aida proved once more that she is the superdiva of our times – I believe she will get deeper into her characted and polish it vocally even more, regardless of her second performance being almost impeccable. Her top notes are still very secure, even if not so brightly ringing anymore, while her lower register has become even richer and resonate with deep chest sound each mezzo would dream for. Her full commitment to her character, absolute immersion and ability to project multitude of emotions, combined with strength of projection and admirable dramatic talent is what makes her every new role a sensational experience. The most thrilling was her delivery of “Ritorna vincitor” where you can feel torment between love and loyalty, and frantic search for new ground of this new persona. Even more shattering was the final scene in duet with Radames, when at “O terra, addio” the audience let out collective sob.. Bravissima!
Ekaterina Semenchuk is one of the exemplary Amneris, she possess a royal posture and authority through voice and smallest gesture, and her vocal capabilities in lower register are goose-bumps raising. In this particular production it might even be that Amneris becomes a real main protagonist, as the storyline tends to dive into her challenges – how to win this desired heart of Radames, how to overcome her competitor Aida, how to save Radames from the destiny partially imposed on him by herself? Ekaterina Semenchuk excels in portrayal of her character, she constructs a royal with pride and selfworth, but also with a lot of doubt and insecurities. For the particular performance, her start was surprisingly quiet, even covered by the orchestra, but she warmed up gradually and reached her exquisite deep resonating sound in suspicions scene. On Act 2 she turned into singing powerhouse, on fire with jeleousy, longing and passion, ready to fight for her love till the end. Impressive in confrontation duet with Aida both vocally and dramatically!
Radames in fact is very difficult role, since it so easy to become stereotypical, overconfident, love- blinded warrior, therefore main issue to conquer is to construct the character who is human. Francesco Meli has managed to do so – even being as a superhero, who wins all the battles, he is torn between loyalty, duty and impossible love.
Meli has grown tremendously – his legato has significantly improved, his top notes are not forced and are well supported, and he has added a lot of sensuality on top of his characteristic italienate sonorous sound. I would assume there are some similarities with Franco Corelli in the style of delivery. The most surprising was his “Celeste Aida”, filled with such tenderness and delicate use of gradual piano to piano pianissimo.
Dynamics of the main protagonists: Aida and Amneris, Aida and Amonasro, Radames with Aida and Amneris are at the centerpoint of this production, positioning it on the level of psychological thriller. It is notable, that the themes of manipulation, misuse of power, dangers of radicalisation and fanaticism and helplesness are serving as a uniform backdrop.
Luca Salsi as Amonasro created regal, fatherly character who emphatically takes care of his compatriots in captivity, while puts his country interests over his daughters illusory happiness. Salsi has grown in confidence since I first saw him in La Scala in “I due Foscari”, then at the Bayerisches Staatsoper as Carlo Gerard in “Andrea Chenier” – his stage presence has become much stronger, and even if the role is comparatively small, he delivered it with finesse, demonstrating both vocal strength and acting capability. Even if his baritone sounds typical, he has some peculiar tone I am learning to recognise, and I believe he has many great future roles coming.
Other supporting roles were delivered professionaly and with confidence: Ramfis by Dmitry Belosselskiy in imposing costume sounded authoritarian; The King by Roberto Tagliavini was regal but aloof, and his bass sounded flawless.
Riccardo Muti has made peculiar reading of the score, paying attention to details, and made Vienna Philarmonic sound impeccable. Either these were quiet and melodiuos strings turning into blaze of sound in prelude, or overwhelming brass, you can distinguish each voice and strength of the whole ensemble – it is possible only by a master, who loves Verdi as Muti do. He created unbelievably efficient Act 2, involving impressive chorus and increasing tempi – rewriting usual perception of the well-known piece.
As the summary – maybe it is the best “Aida” I have ever seen – but for sure, I desperatly need another take of it – being it TV stream on Saturday or DVD we hope for – Bravi for the team and the cast!
Salzburger Festspiele, performance of August 9th, 2017
Riccardo Muti, Conductor
Shirin Neshat, Director
The King: Roberto Tagliavini
Amneris: Ekaterina Semenchuk
Aida: Anna Netrebko
Radames: Francesco Meli
Ramfis: Dmitry Belosselskiy
Amonasro: Luca Salsi
Bror Magnus Tødenes,
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus