Sunday, 4 October 2015

Met Opera - Aida

A screening of Verdi's opera Aida was showing at Luna Palace this past weekend, and with Mum keen to see it, we wandered down to Fremantle for the afternoon session.

Aida is a Verdi opera sang in Italian and set in Ancient Egypt. It centres around a love triangle of Aida, Ethiopian Princess and slave to the Egyptian Princess Amneris, Amneris and the Egyptian General Radames. Aida and Radames love each other and consequently lose all common sense, and Amneris loves Radames but not enough to let him be happy even if she is not. Aida's father, King of Ethiopia mounts a battle to rescue her from Egypt, and Radames thinks that leading the Egyptians into battle, routing the Ethiopians and killing their king will win him Aida's love.
Like I said, common sense went out the window before the curtain even rose.

Verdi's Opera:
While I'm on the subject of Verdi's plot, let me make a few slight complaints about the language used. The Italian is fine, and Mum, who was listening to it all in Italian was thoroughly impressed by the intonation and sound of the piece, and particularly the fact that Radames managed to sing an entire piece in the subjunctive.
Saying that, I would like to add that Verdi, a) seems to have never visited Egypt and b) must have come from Northern Italy. The reason is that early on, his characters keep singing about the 'warmth' of the sun. Anyone who has visited Egypt, visited Rome in the middle of summer, lived through an Australian summer is well aware that you don't refer to the heat of the sun in positive terms. The sun sears, it dries a land that is already predominately desert. Siestas during the middle of the day exist for a reason, to keep you in a cool dark interior when the sun is directly overhead. It is all well and good to use references to the sun when referring to your love if your love is a toxic love that is destroying you, but not when trying to imply that it fills you with warmth and joy and happiness. The Nile was the giver of life in Ancient Egypt, not the Sun.
Secondly, there was the continual use of references to 'heaven' throughout the opera. While the ancient Egyptians did believe in a life after death, it is usually referred to as the 'Afterlife'. 'Heaven' is a Christian term which is entirely out of place in a setting several thousand years before the birth of Jesus. I don't know if this was simply a bad translation or bad research on the part of Verdi.
Somewhere within his piece, Verdi also mentioned 'laurels' in association with Radames' victory over the Ethiopians. Laurel wreaths were a feature of Ancient Greece and Rome, not Egypt.

Met Setting:
The setting of Aida is Ancient Egypt, at any time during the Old Kingdom, and the Met Opera's set delivered spectacularly. The size and magnificence of Abu Simbel and the Temple of Isis at Philae were more than adequately conveyed. Additionally, the setting didn't try to replicate the Sphinx, or the famous bust of Nefititi, or even a temple from a head, with the doorway in place of a mouth, Instead it was realistic for a setting of Ancient Egypt. In fact, looking through the photos now, it reminds me of the grandeur of the ruins of Luxor.

What was also beautifully down was the final scene. (Plot spoiler) Radames is entombed alive beneath the temple for (accidentally) giving away the army's battle plans and surprise surprise out of the shadows emerges Aida who has decided that rather than run away to her homeland become Queen and mount a battle against Egypt, she'll entomb herself with Radames and starve to death with him. Above in the temple Amneris is engaged in a service of worship.
The set was the familiar temple scene from earlier, that was half raised so Amneris is standing halfway up the height of the stage while Aida and Radames were on the stage in the underground tomb. It was brilliantly done and as the set was raised, looked as though we were panning down through the stone floor to see the cross section of Radames's tomb.

I do have a few small quibbles though.
In the procession scene (see above images), the thrones are located on a platform above a statue of a half buried head. Now this opera is set in Ancient Egypt centuries before the shifting sands of time had the chance to bury half a statue, not that such a thing would happen to the processional way of a major city where the Pharaoh lived. Additionally, the headdress of this statue indicate that it is of a Pharaoh, which makes it even more unlikely that it would have been intentionally carved to have half the face missing. Indeed it would have been much more appropriate to have a line of figures standing or seated in bas relief.

The lighting throughout the entire performance felt remarkably dim, giving the impression that the Opera was staged in smoggy Beijing as opposed to pre-Industrial Egypt. While the harsh light appropriate for Egypt may have provided too much glare for the audience, particularly when combined with the predominantly white costumes of the cast, what we had instead was the appearance that the entire play was set at night or in the twilight hour.

This also had a detrimental effect on the visibility of the setting as the detail and colour disappeared in the darkness. The fresco on the wall of the Princess' boudoir (below) is spectacular in its vibrancy and detail. It is a replication of a hunting scene from the tomb of Nebamun, held at the British Museum. Unfortunately, the level of the lighting meant that the majority of the fresco and the vibrancy of the colours were lost to the audience. It wasn't until I started looking for pictures online that the detail became apparent and the lighting stood out as the main fault. Watching the performance, it felt more as though the set designers were perpetrating the myth that Ancient Egypt was sandstone walls and white clothes with barely any colour beside the gold and turquoise that was liberally sprinkled over the entire cast. Admittedly, the Temple of Isis (above) was painted with faded colours as we tourists would see it 3000+ years later. When it was still in use, the frescoes of such a sacred place would not have been allowed to fade.

Met Costumes:
One thing I am discovering about the Met Opera is that the accuracy of their costumes clearly fit into two categories; great supporting cast, dreadful main cast.
Supporting Cast
The fabrics were not perfect as they were not fine pleated linen that either clung to the body or illustrated the line of the body through their folds, but they were matt, pleated and they had been sewn into the pleated shape depicted in historical records. For a normal theatre goer who was viewing the whole thing from a distance, they produced the correct silhouettes, correct shapes and correct angles of fabric. They definitely produced the desired effect, for the Chief priest looked as though he had stepped off the walls, or down from his pedestal at the Cairo Museum.
Realistically the dancers would have been clothed in nothing bar a jewelled belt, but this would probably have been a little too shocking for the Met's audiences. Instead they were dressed in jewelled belts and bandeaux covered with fine pleated fabric of a lightness that called to mind the historical clothing attributed to their profession.

Radames is the first person on stage, and were it not for the giant sandstone wall (of an Egyptian Temple) in the background (as opposed to Roman columns) I would not blame the audience for thinking the setting was Ancient Rome. The reason is solely the general's costume. Despite the collar and triangular piece handing from the waist band, the gold  headband and billowing cape seemed to scream 'Roman' far more than they did Egyptian.


(in the images above, same star, different costumers. The left is from the Met Opera's production, the right is from La Scala's production).
This didn't much improve when he changed to look like something right out of the movie Gladiator.

Amneris, as Princess of Egypt (supposedly an only child and heir to the throne no less) was appropriately dripping with gold and turquoise jewellery, and gold beads throughout her hair. However despite the need to portray her as the Egyptian princess, she managed to look overdressed. Her costumes comprised of layer upon layer of draped shiny opaque fabric, all hidden beneath a larger heavier cloak. As this incorporated several types of gold fabric (on one occasion gold lame), it began to look more like a Halloween costume of an Egyptian Princess than an Egyptian Princess. And what you could see of her bodice, under the heavy jewellery and belt, was of a shiny satin/lycra fabric.  This wasn't helped by the ridiculous headdress she donned in Act 2 Scene 2. At first glance it looked more like a Native American feathered headdress than anything out of Ancient Egypt.

Thankfully her costumes improved slightly towards the end as the fabrics in which she was dressed became a little softer and more transparent, slightly more in keeping with the clothing of history.
And what's with the bloody capes? Amneris was frequently dressed in capes - unnecessarily so, simply swamping her frame with more bulky fabric, Aida wore a cape down her back and trailing along the ground for her dawn meeting with Radames.

Unlike Amneris who changed costumes three or four times, Aida only had two outfits. The first was simple; a variation of an Edwardian 'Britannia' style costume. It worked in that it signified that Aida was different from the Egyptians and different from the other slaves of Princess Amneris (these women were not dressed in a corset and green sash). Unfortunately it did nothing to establish a cultural identity for Aida and the Ethiopians.

For Acts Three and Four, Aida changed out of this tolerable number into something that was not only totally inexplicable but horrendous as well. It was a tasselled dress in a blue/green shade, bright enough to only be legitimate after the introduction of synthetic aneline dyes in 1856. It was in keeping with neither Aida's previous dress or the style of her father's outfit. Instead it looked like a 19th century bastardisation of a native american dress. And attached to the back of this dress is an impractical, unnecessary and unused cape.

The costume of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia was surprisingly good. It bore no resemblance to the non-Egyptian costume of his daughter excepting the use of diagonals across the chest. However in its own right it called to mind the colours and styles stereotypically associated with native Africa.

The Pharaoh's first headdress was a mimicry of Tutankhamun's death mask made with cheap looking gold and white satin fabric. While the shape is one that does appear in Ancient Egyptian frescos, it is usually a very stiff, structured shape as opposed to the soft fabric version seen here. Using the gold and shiny satin this ended up looking more like the type of headdress found in cheap Halloween costumes than as though it had been sourced from a Museum.

His second headdress was more historically accurate, being the double crown of upper and lower Egypt, except for the fact that the colours were utterly incorrect. What it should be is a white interior representing Upper Egypt, and a Red exterior representing Lower Egypt. Because red/ochre was not used in any of the costumes the colours of the crown were changed to be more in keeping with 'something'. As a result, the interior crown was gold and the exterior white.

I'm beginning to find I have no patience for the ridiculous, unrealistic plots of old operas, and little patience for inaccurate settings and costumes, particularly when as a whole it looks as though they're trying to be in keeping with an era.

Mum and I are going to see Turandot next year. God help her.

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