Aida

The music is more memorable than the staging in classic Verdi opera.


AIDA by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by Tim Albery, conducted by Johannes Debus (Canadian Opera Company). To November 5, October 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 27, 30, November 2 and 5 at 7:30 pm, matinee October 24 at 2 pm. $62-$281, rush $22, standing room $12. 416-363-8231. See listing. Rating: NNN


Forget the elephants and pyramids.

The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Verdi’s Aida passes on the work’s ancient Egyptian roots and instead sets the story of love, revenge and patriotism in a 1960s totalitarian regime, vaguely Soviet in feel.

Here the title character is a cleaning woman her lover, Radames, becomes a military man who turns to the bottle, and her rival, Amneris, the power-wielding politico daughter of the country’s ruler.

Presented from Aida’s viewpoint, this production is fine to hear – it has some of Verdi’s best music – but less good to watch.

In the original, Aida (Sondra Radvanovsky, who shares the role with Michele Capalbo) is an Ethiopian slave, in love with and loved by Egyptian warrior Radames (Rosario La Spina) he in turn is desired by princess Amneris (Jill Grove), who suspects that Aida is her rival. The story becomes more complex when the Ethiopian king, Amonasro (Scott Hendricks), Aida’s father, is captured and plots to destroy his enemies.

Director Tim Albery shakes the story up in his revision, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The world he creates, often intentionally drab, is a male-dominated, violent society of neon-lit meeting rooms and military uniforms. The country’s flag features a huge revolver, and soldiers prepare for battle in a voyeuristic, bloody temple scene.

But sometimes the result, designed by Hildegard Bechtler (sets) and John Morrell (costumes), is silly rather than striking. Amneris’s tacky private rooms feature shelves of designer shoes and handbags, and the basement of the temple of Isis – why all these Egyptian references when the production has nothing to do with them? – resembles a theatre basement with discarded chairs and set pieces, including palm trees.

The Triumphal March becomes Aida’s fantasy, where, after her physical abuse by the Egyptians, she imagines skeletal soldiers killing her countrymen and then having sex with gold lamĂ©-clad women.

In theatrical terms, though, the real problem is that Albery doesn’t evoke much tension between characters. It’s there in the score, but the confrontations between Amneris and Aida or Radames and Amneris pack little punch. There’s some feeling between Aida and Radames, but it’s only when Amonasro appears that some excitement enters the production.

On a musical level, things are much better, with Johannes Debus conducting a lustrous reading of the score. La Spina’s sings stylishly and without bellowing (as many tenors do), Grove’s Amneris is vocally commanding and Hendricks makes a seductive, electric revolutionary.

And it’s unlikely you’ll hear a better Aida than Radvanovsky, who understands the score’s drama and can scale her big voice down to float pure, hushed notes to the back of the house. You can almost forget the production’s often bizarre concept when she’s singing Aida’s third-act aria, O patria mia, the sands of her homeland trickling through her fingers as she opens her sad heart to the audience. Gorgeous work.

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