Centenary “Aida” awes the Arena Audience

Verona, Arena di Verona, Centenary Opera Festival  2013
Opera in four acts, libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni
Composer Giuseppe Verdi
Aida  HUI HE
Un messaggero
Orchestra,  Chorus and Ballet of the Arena di Verona
Conductor Omer Meir Wellber
Chorus master Armando Tasso
Director Carlus Padrissa & Alex Ollé/ La Fura dels Baus
Assistant Director/Choreographer Valentina Carrasco
Set design Roland Olbeter
Costumes Chu Uroz
Lighting Design Paolo Mazzon 
Verona, 14th June 2013  

A spectacular inauguration with the iconic opera Aida, at the centenary season of the Arena in Veron,a worthy of an Olympics opening ceremony.  If the Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus, with Carlus Pedrissa and Alex Ollé as directors, Valentina Carrasco as choreographer and Roland Olbeter as scene designer, is contracted to mount a production, the least that can be expected is that the production will be astonishing, thought provoking and unusual by traditional standards. Their self-confessed aim is to reach a correct synthesis between culture, spectacle and experimentation, and their philosophy is to adopt the widest range of expedients possible including movement and acrobatics in all its forms, the use of natural and industrial materials, the application of new technologies and often, audience participation.
In their production of the Arena’s centenary celebration of Aida all this and more was achieved.  So much of significance was happening at any given point on the enormous stage, that it was impossible to take it all in, especially when the action originated behind the audience’s back, as it unexpectedly did when processions bearing illuminated globes wound their way sinuously through the audience from the top most tiers, to converge on the stage for the temple scene at the end of act one. The staging was a feast and a challenge for the eye and mind. A staging which finally manages to exploit the unique characteristics of the Arena, using stage-effects, inimitable in a theatre; fiery insignia on poles encircle the top rung of the Arena, cranes, trucks, an enormous, 22 metre high solar power plant, and a flooded stage to accommodate the Nile complete with crocodiles and a boat.  A rich input of ideas weaves the archeological vision with technological and  futuristic ones, unifying the remote past and the future, and supplying thoughtful and at times, desecrating analogies.
The introduction to the opera begins a quarter of an hour before the performance, with the low howl of the desert wind and a scene of active archeological digs complete with crates destined for the British Museum, reminiscent of Indiana Jones or the Howard Carter/Lord Carnavon Tutankhamon expedition.  Massive mirror-faced blocks, used effectively with lighting throughout the opera, (lighting designer Paolo Mazzon) are hoisted in to place during the first two acts, to form a modern day pyramid; an installation inspired by a real solar plant on the Spanish-French border.  Gigantic inflated sand dunes cover the ‘gradinata’, beautifully effective, life-size mechanical elephants and camels parade in the Triumphal March, preceded by gliding bumper-cars with an outsized scarab logo, (a homage to a famous Italian scooter manufacturer, although greeted by giggles and some vociferous protests from the audience), the dance of the slaves performed as shadow theatre and bins of radio-active material on the side-lines. In most, if not every, Aida production, the highlight of the production is justly, the triumphal scene, after which the last two acts, in comparison, usually seem to wind down (as witnessed by the groups of tourists who regularly desert the Arena after the second act).  Not so in this production. The Nile scene is rich in eye-catching and luscious details: a boat slowly crosses the Nile, the mirror of the solar panel reflects the moonlight on the water, friendly crocodiles cavort and the oversized palm fronds comment on the scene like a Greek Chorus, and the theatrical interest and tension is sustained right until the last bars of the last act, as the gigantic, concave solar panel, reflecting the burnished colours of sand, is slowly lowered to become the lovers’ tomb.  The overall effect was stunning and overwhelming.
This does not mean to say that the production was an outright success. The costumes, by Chu Uroz,  were unflattering and debatable, especially for the soloists. Not only did they not enhance the singers’ presence, but rendered them rather ridiculous and parodistic.  Many of the stage effects were also greeted with hilarity, but above all, the staging predominated the music.  With so much happening on stage, the singing and music were almost an accompaniment. The Triumphal Scene remained flat, as bumper cars lack the weight and presence of a procession.  The Egyptian trumpets, usually a highlight, went almost unnoticed. The chorus was lumped together in the middle of the stage as the parade circled them. The action on stage had no correspondence to the many and varied musical episodes taking place in the orchestra which make up the triumphal scene.  The hissing sound of the inflatable sand dunes and the sight of their expanding girth during “Ritorna Vincitor”, deflected all attention from the aria.
The cast, for the most part seasoned Arena singers, rather than having the production as a support, found themselves in competition with it. There was little opportunity for interaction or expressiveness, hindered as they were by awkward costumes, complicated staging and some difficult positioning (Radames and Amneris atop of mobile staircases in the triumph scene). Only Ambrogio Maestri as Amonasro thanks to his natural exuberance, and generous though sometimes unruly vocality, managed to characterize his role.  Giovanna Casolla as Amneris lacked the vocal strength necessary to be incisive.  Fabio Sartori, a solid Radames gained greater ease as the evening progressed.  Hui He as Aida was vocally uneven. Her high notes were often flat and the top C in O Cieli Azzurri was out of reach. Although light-weight, Roberto Tagliavini’s round quality and smooth and homogeneous emission throughout his range, made a convincing King. Adrian Sampetrean as Ramfis and Carlo Bosi as the Messenger were both precise and measured in their respective roles. Elena Rossi’s off-stage High Priestess was pitched flat, and by the end of the scene, so was the female chorus which accompanied her.  It was apparent, that the conductor, Omer Meir Wellber, was inexperienced  in the enormous context of the Arena.  He didn’t concede any musical sensibility to the performance, driving the music along at a brisk pace without perceivable phrasing.  At times he had difficulty keeping the orchestra and chorus together, perhaps the result of a conducting style more akin to fencing.  Fine playing from the orchestra in their signature opera. An exciting production, which seemed to provoke, however, admiration rather than emotional involvement.  Public opinion was immediately divided over its merits and defects,  but  whatever  the sentence, this production has opened new frontiers for future opera staging in the Arena. Photo Ennevi for Fondazione Arena