The singers were outstanding, the sets amazing. Davide Livermore's Aida for Opera Australia has brought a total sensory experience to the Melbourne stage. There was no weak link in the exceptional cast, well drilled chorus, delightful dancers and accomplished orchestra. Visually the sets were stunning, perhaps over-stunning, with D-Wok's large movable digital screens bringing brightness and spectacle to the stage, seeming, at times, as if a kid was playing with a new toy.

Stefano La Colla (Radamès) and Leah Crocetto (Aida)
© Jeff Busby

Aida , premiered at the opening of the Cairo Opera House 150 years ago, is oft-performed. It is a story of love and betrayal, loyalty and jealousy, told with pomp and ceremony contrasted with intimacy and deeply felt emotions. Singing Aida with a beautiful richness and control was powerfully-voiced American soprano Leah Crocetto. Her interpretation of “O patria mia” in Act 3 was the highlight of the performance, bringing a freshness and intensity that was deeply moving. As Amneris, Elena Gabouri was best singer on the night. She oozed festering anger and suspicion at her first appearance, then poignantly displayed unrequited love while standing grief-stricken on an inverted pyramid over the lifeless Radamès, imploring Isis to take him up to heaven. An image of an oversized menacing black panther displayed on the digital screens that parted for Amneris’ entry, accompanied her throughout, until her humanity surfaced when she was overcome with the depth of her love for Radamès, now condemned as a traitor.

Leah Crocetto as (Aida) and Elena Gabouri (Amneris)
© Jeff Busby

Italian tenor Stefano La Colla was a full-throated Radamès, who right from his early “Celeste Aida” demonstrated his ability to command, express emotion and convey light and shade in his voice. However, his acting was often static, hands dangling at his side. It was only in dying, in a square of light representing his suffocating prison, that he looked the part. Crocetto's Aida stood behind him, blending with him in an endearingly intimate “O, terra addio”.

Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov, a sonorous Ramfis, enthralled in all his richness, from the beginning of the opera to his final condemnation of Radamès as a traitor. Confined in a grey suit of armour, appearing unable to move, Gennadi Dubinsky sang with a beautifully resonant bass, clear and authoritative as the Egyptian king. On the other hand Michael Honeyman’s Amonasro, the Ethiopian king, did not have such a presence. As he warned Aida not to reveal him, and again as he badgered her to compromise Radamès, he projected a preoccupation with the Egyptian-Ethiopian battle. This seemed Honeyman’s primary focus, his voice strong and demanding. Versatile Australian soprano Jane Ede made the most of her role as High Priestess, her “Immenso Fthà!” a convincingly authentic invocation to the god. As she installed Radamès, the digital background exploded into a burst of flames – one could almost feel the heat – while the dancers went wild, writhing as if afflicted by St Vitus dance.

Gennadi Dubinsky (The King) and cast of Aida
© Jeff Busby

Dean Bassett was the most expressive Messenger I have ever heard. It’s a role that is often overlooked, yet Bassett spoke volumes in his authenticity. The Opera Australia Chorus was brilliant, rendering the compelling, grand choruses with precision and power. After a fizzer of a Triumphal March (the trumpets from inside the auditorium were brilliant) in which the Ethiopian prisoners looked like inferior mendicants, the conclusion of Act 2 was amazing: six principals, chorus and orchestra full throated in their acclaim – an engrossing wall of rapturous sound such as is rarely heard. Tahu Matheson extracted the best from Orchestra Victoria, with magnificent sounds as well as delicacy and intimacy when called for.

Alexander Vinogradov (Ramfis) and Stefano La Colla (Radamès)
© Jeff Busby

The controversial digital scenery was a mixed blessing, but is destined to become the medium of the future. Scenes of the wide expanse of the Nile, night clouds, crescent moon and sparkling stars providing a remarkably gentle and restful commencement to Act 3. When Amneris gave in to her love of the condemned Radamès, her on-screen panther dissolved into pieces and blew away. At the conclusion, as the heavens parted for the dying Aida and Radamès, they flooded the stage with bright white light. The screens gave brilliant expression to the expanse of the desert, the fury of a dust storm, the ride of the messenger through a deep valley, but they also intruded at times. The power of these electronics should never take precedence over the singing. Such devices should always assume a role that enhances the story and the singing, rather than competing against it.