Although it doesn’t have a maritime theme, Verdi’s Aida was another sound choice for Opera Australia’s annual Harbour-side production. Now in its fourth year, this series has understandably gone for major hits (La traviata, Carmen, Butterfly) and created spectacular productions to match the uniquely photogenic backdrop, which includes the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and the Sydney skyline at dusk. Aida is synonymous with pageantry, with the Act II triumphal march a gift for stage directors wishing to wow audiences. Gale Edwards' production is a riot of colour and movement, excessive to be sure, but not inappropriately so. Aside from the obligatory fireworks (here introduced at a lull in the Act II finale), flames shot up during the temple scene in Act I, and Radamès returned from the war on the back of a camel. If you like opera big and flashy (and can forgive the occasional passing helicopter), this is the production for you.

Mark Thompson’s stage design was dominated by a gigantic head modelled on the famous statue of Nefertiti now in Berlin, which rotated in Act II to reveal the King’s throne. One eye was missing, Terminator-style, and it was from this elevated position that Amneris sang her final lament over the dying lovers. During the Prelude, various cartoonish generals pondered manoeuvres on a war map showing the borders between Egypt and Ethiopia, Sudan having conveniently vanished. The production was a collage of different styles in which (to quote the programme note) “images from classical and modern Egypt blend unashamedly”. The rows of oil barrels were one such contemporary twist, and the triumphalism of the victorious army returning with their spoils in Act II was nicely undercut by having rows of coffins laid out on the stage. Elsewhere, the opportunities for lavish display were wholeheartedly embraced, with troops of dancers and flag choreography suggesting the world of musical theatre perhaps more than opera.

By chance, the other day I was talking with a colleague from the vocal unit at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music about the differences between opera and musical theatre. Conceptually very different things, in practice the dividing line between them tends to blur: opera composers nowadays freely embrace vernacular musical styles, and some works (such as Porgy and Bess) have crossed the divide and are heard in both spheres. However, one distinction that still mostly pertains is in the nature of the singing: where musical theatre employs amplified sound freely, in opera the singers have to do it all by themselves.

Opera on the Harbour erases this difference by miking up the cast. I’m not suggesting it could be otherwise when performing in the open air, without the benefit of a stage shell to send the sound forward into a closed auditorium. Nonetheless, the fact remains that volume adjustment can and does take place when voices are put through speakers. Having heard most of the cast at one time or other in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, I’m aware how much vocal heft each possesses, and while their dynamic ranges were more or less equivalent last night, this would not have been the case were they heard inside the Opera House. 

Not that the microphones erased all differences between the cast members: tone quality, amplitude of vibrato, and of course, sheer dramatic intensity were still points of distinction. The outstanding Latonia Moore, who bowled me over in the title role indoors three years ago, was again vocally resplendent. Strong at both ends of her range (she even threw in an unwritten top E flat at the very end of Act I for good measure), Moore’s voice was as colourful as her costume, which would have put any technicolor dreamcoat to shame. As Amneris, Milijana Nikolic sounded her best at moments of high drama, and she captured the emotional range of her character extremely well. Michael Honeyman was good as Amonasro (here a Rastafarian guerrilla), David Parkin was appropriately stentorian as the priest Ramfis, and Eva Kong impressed in her short scene as the high priestess.

Less to my taste was Walter Fraccaro’s Radamès: while he possessed a strong top B flat, I found his pronounced wobble off-putting. Gennadi Dubinsky as King was so unfocused in his pitching at the start that it was hard to make out what the line might be. The conductor Brian Castles-Onion, a veteran of the Harbour series, directed the instrumentalists and singers with very few notable hitches. The tone of the orchestral strings occasionally suffered from the amplification – for instance, the delicate figuration in “Celeste Aida” sounded mechnical – but the bigger moments were properly rousing. Given this, it was perhaps no tragedy that the exotic opening of the Nile scene in Act III was cut, important though these first four minutes are for establishing the atmosphere.