Like many of Verdi’s most bankable operas, Aida has been a regular presence in Opera Australia programs over the past decade. The current offering is the third production this reviewer has seen, preceded by Graeme Murphy’s 2012 main-stage version, and Gale Edwards’ Harbour-side extravaganza in 2015. Where Murphy lingers in the memory for the many dance sequences, and Edwards for prismatic excess, this new version by Davide Livermore is most notable for its digital set. With regular collaborators set designer Giò Forma and video designer D-Wok, Livermore has created a series of sliding LED panels decorated with video loops of various Egyptian motifs – writhing serpents, hieroglyphs, headdress-wearing semi-naked divinities – but these nods to history only served to highlight the essentially futuristic feel of the production. The results were certainly visually striking, indeed almost painfully so during the vivid lightning effects created in conjunction with lighting designer John Rayment.

Riccardo Massi (Radamès) and Amber Wagner (Aida) © Prudence Upton
Riccardo Massi (Radamès) and Amber Wagner (Aida)
© Prudence Upton

But is this move to digital sets indeed the future of opera, as company director Lyndon Terracini claimed in pre-performance interviews? The current production is certainly very slick in its operation: the fluid movement of the video panels is a world away from the creaky mixture of digital projections and moving stage parts of the notorious Robert Lepage Ring cycle at the Met, for instance. It would certainly be unwise to resist the new staging innovations in the name of traditionalism: opera has always been a technologically driven art-form, and never more so than in the era of French 19th-century grand opera, of which Aida is a late offshoot.

More than most of Verdi’s middle-period works, Aida relies on big tableau-like scenes, and spectacle is built into the very fabric of the drama. The essentially static quality of some of the loops was thus not out of keeping with the spirit of the original. At times, the set does detract attention from the singers, but there is a merciful restraint in the Act 3 duets (largely looping the same storm-cloud sequence), where attention needs to be paid to the dialogue. However, these moments can feel underwhelming, as the singers are given direction that offers little dramatic interest.

Elena Gabouri (Amneris) and Amber Wagner (Aida) © Prudence Upton
Elena Gabouri (Amneris) and Amber Wagner (Aida)
© Prudence Upton

Not all the images work: the large cobra provoked giggles, and the vast black panther slowly nodding during Amneris’s scenes (presumably a metaphor for her jealousy) was overused. The pregnant woman seen at the start of Act 3 was also mysterious. But as an experiment in staging, it was a qualified success, and it will be interesting to see this technology revisited in future productions, as Terracini plans.

There were high expectations of Amber Wagner after her star turn as Sieglinde in the Melbourne Ring in 2016, and her performance in the title role here more than fulfilled them. She was a towering vocal presence, her rich soprano powering above the orchestra and exhibiting a variety of colours appropriate to the dramatic needs of the scene.

<i>Aida</i> at Opera Australia © Prudence Upton
Aida at Opera Australia
© Prudence Upton

Elena Gabouri was one of the more dramatically convincing performers on the night, capturing Amneris' jealousy and later her desperation as she loses Radamès. In the lower vocal regions, her voice had a brassy ring which projected well, but also soared comfortably above the stave, with only the occasional instance of over-generous vibrato.

The Radamès of Riccardo Massi was solid, but rarely enthralling. He delivered a lyrical "Celeste Aida", but sounded underpowered in some of the more dramatic moments. There was little chemistry between the lovers, symbolised by their physical separation during the final "O terra addio". (The lengthy curtain drop before this scene, presumably necessary for Amneris to be hoisted onto the inverted pyramid, was a rare moment where the production was anything other than fluid.)

Warwick Fyfe (Amonasro) and Amber Wagner (Aida) © Prudence Upton
Warwick Fyfe (Amonasro) and Amber Wagner (Aida)
© Prudence Upton

Among the other singers Warwick Fyfe was a sonorous and forceful Amonasro, Roberto Scandiuzzi a noble Ramfis, and Jud Arthur was a stentorian King, clad in a costume part Dr Who Cyberman and part the creature from The Shape of Water. Most of the rest of Gianluca Falaschi’s costumes were more obviously Egyptian in theme.

The Opera Australia Chorus was as solid as ever, and entered well into the spirit of the choreography, which included a Mexican wave of hand gestures during the Triumphal Scene. Andrea Battistoni marshalled things well, after an early misjudgement which saw the orchestra overpower tenor and mezzo in their duet. While the dancing was not as lyrical or as pervasive as in Murphy’s production, the troupe who performed during the Act 2 pageantry were a lively addition to the evening’s spectacle.

****1