The last time Aida was part of the Opéra de Paris’s programme, Paris had entered the tumultuous year of 1968, full of riots and social clashes. Forty-five years have passed and since then France and French culture have undergone numerous changes; and so, it would seem, has Verdi’s masterpiece. However, under the artistic and musical direction of Olivier Py and Philippe Jordan respectively, Verdi’s opera has ignited a veritable storm of both fervent criticism and ardent defence. Barely had the première of this new production finished that a wave of ink was spilled in its name, with crowds and critics widely divided over Olivier Py’s latest work. It is amazing to note with what fervor a particular cultural event can still create uproar and even outrage.

Luciana d'Intino (Amneris) © Opéra national de Paris/Elisa Haberer
Luciana d'Intino (Amneris)
© Opéra national de Paris/Elisa Haberer

Accused by audience members of having “betrayed” Verdi, during the première itself on the anniversary of his birth no less, Py’s latest production seems to have well and truly shaken Parisian opera-goers. And yet, such reactions are surprising. Olivier Py is known for his rather outlandish and daring ideas. His operatic designs have always shocked and surprised audiences, bringing a breath of fresh air to old works; this is precisely the reason he is so valued. Following a well-received Alceste in September and a highly anticipated Dialogues des Carmelites in December, his Aida was not to go unnoticed.

Now set during the Risorgimento, the reunification process of the Italian peninsula of which Verdi became an emblematic figure, Olivier Py’s production focuses on a religiously totalitarian 19th-century Austro-Hungarian empire and its conflict with Italy, worlds apart from the original Egyptian-Ethiopian conflict. Such a transformation does not necessarily require such an enormous leap of faith or imagination. However, between an idea and its execution there lies a veritable chasm, and unfortunately for Py, it seems he has fallen short of crossing this without fault.

Full of shamelessly obvious and almost simplistic symbolism, Py’s production ultimately rings a little hollow. Once the wonder and awe of the impressive (and entirely golden) set design has worn off, we find ourselves faced with something very superficial: a focus on the political, and not the romantic. Where we expect to find a story of love and desire, we find in its place one of politics and a denunciation of colonialism and nationalism. Nonetheless, Py’s effort merits recognition. Operas such as Aida have become almost untouchable, for fear of (as is the case here) “betraying” the composer and ruining a masterpiece. Change is rarely well received at the Opéra de Paris, and whilst the level of criticism towards this production is particularly impressive, any criticism itself is ultimately unsurprising.

Bringing life to this production was an interesting variety of singers. Singing Aida, Oksana Dyka – still in the early years of her career – is certainly not lacking in power. Undoubtedly a requisite, this must nonetheless be balanced with a control and tenderness that softens the rough edges of such power when in the higher registers. Unfortunately, Dyka’s voice strayed on occasion due to an almost overwhelming power, ultimately standing in the way of clear intonation and articulation. Similarly, Luciana d’Intino as Amneris at times sacrificed diction and clarity for raw power, though this was only an occasional flaw. Sergey Murzaev as Amonasro and Roberto Scandiuzzi as Ramfis both provided excellent male support. However, it was clear that the star of this production was not the heroine Aida but the hero Radamès, sung by Marcelo Alvarez with utter force and conviction.

At the helm of the orchestra, Philippe Jordan was on top form with an obvious passion, able to control the powerful orchestra through the subtle pianissimo opening and closing and the contrasting explosive passages that mark the opera’s jubilant story. However, despite this, the orchestra felt slightly weak at times: the famous Triumphal March, though pitch perfect, lacked that all-important element of overpowering triumph, leaving the audience with a somewhat tepid sensation.

Whilst I thought this particular concert would be spared the irksome boos that have allegedly plagued past performances, the image of a mass grave evoked numerous whistles and shouts from the audience. Strangely, this same audience was entirely unmoved by the puzzling sight of a burning cross and eight Ku Klux Klan-styled figures appearing on stage – a mysterious element in Py’s visual narrative that seems out of place beyond the broad context of “evil spirits of death”.

Paris has waited 45 years for the Opéra de Paris’s latest production of Aida…was it worth the wait? Despite its staunch defenders, this may unfortunately be a production that will not go down in operatic history, and if it does, it will in all likelihood be for its unfortunately hostile reception and not for its content. Then again, is this not the path followed by all creations that eventually become cult favourites?

***11