Virtually every reviewer of Aida mentions elephants, generally only to note their absence: the elephant not in the room, as it were. Like most others, the current Opera Australia production was lacking in pachyderms, but few of last night’s audience will have felt short-changed. We were treated to some of the most thrilling singing I have yet heard at the Sydney Opera House, in a production that was traditional but not unthinkingly so.

Opera Australia's Aida: Milijana Nikolic as Amneris and Latonia Moore as Aida © Branco Gaica 14 July 2012
Opera Australia's Aida: Milijana Nikolic as Amneris and Latonia Moore as Aida
© Branco Gaica 14 July 2012

While evoking a specific sense of place is generally less important to Verdi than it was to Puccini, musicologist Roger Parker has described Aida as ‘the one Verdi opera that could not conceivably be transported to another geographical location’. This is a reference to the audibly exotic moments of the score: the chants of the priests and the dances of the priestesses and Moorish slaves are evoked by means of sinuous melodies, compelling rhythms and primitive harmonies. With the music so suggestive of the orient, a design team has every reason to try to match this by conveying some visual sense of Pharonic Egypt. It is of course possible to reject this realistic approach, but it is likely to be deeply unpopular: the one time I heard boos at Covent Garden was after a particularly interventionist (and, worse, confused and uninspiring) production in the early 2000s.

Thankfully, Graeme Murphy’s approach here was more traditional. Recognisable cues were employed almost to a point of excess: hieroglyphs were projected onto columns, bird-headed dancers were introduced during the Prelude, and Tutankhamen’s iconic mask appeared at one point. The video projections onto the back screen were more varied: some were directly illustrative (the sun appeared at the word ‘sol’ in ‘Celeste Aida’), or merely pretty (butterflies were used in the same aria). Others were puzzling, even discordant: these included the multiple mouths miming the word ‘guerra’ (war) during Act I and the citrus fruit patterns during one of the ballets. At another point, the dancers were lying on the floor and their interactions and body movements were projected on to the back, giving it the look of a (not terribly convincing) Busby Berkeley number. These moments of dissonance did not suggest a deliberate counter-interpretation, but they prevented the production from seeming like a parade of Egyptian clichés and colourful costumes.

Murphy’s long-time involvement with Sydney Dance Company surely influenced the sheer amount of dancing in this production, which went far beyond the already plentiful moments specified in the score. Mostly this was harmless eye-candy, although it does bespeak an attitude that fears audiences will get bored without constant visual stimulus. The reluctance to leave a curtain down during the initial prelude springs from the same impulse: here I wasn’t convinced by the black bird-humans of death miming with Radamès (foreshadowing his demise?). Movement of another kind was facilitated by the travelators at the front of the stage. These were overused to the point of unintentional comedy, but served a useful purpose in the triumph scene, where various tableaux combining dancers and props were moved across the stage to wonderful effect.

In vocal terms, Latonia Moore in the title role stood out from a truly distinguished cast. Moore has already sung the role at the Met and Covent Garden, and is clearly on the brink of superstardom. Rarely have I ever felt as thrilled by sheer sonority as I was in the first two acts. Gifted with a rich and flexible instrument, in the big scenes she soared above chorus and orchestra seemingly without effort. However, for some reason I found myself less wowed by her performance in Acts III and IV (taken without a break), perhaps as much a reflection of the inherent problems in the dramatic pacing of the work (what can follow the Act II finale?) as on any interpretative failings. (The production in Act III was another let down – the cartoon palm looked tacky, and the frolicking of the gratuitously semi-nude dancers in a few inches of water was hardly dramatically justified.)

Nearly as impressive vocally was the baritone Warwick Fyfe, who gave a dramatically compelling performance as Amonasro. In any other cast he would have been the highlight; as it was, he almost shared the honours with his on-stage daughter. Rosario La Spina as Radamès (not Calaf, as he was credited in one place in the booklet) was highly effective if less compelling. The short-breathed opening phrases of ‘Celeste Aida’ could have floated off more effortlessly, and the final top B flat was hardly pianissimo, but there were some beautiful moments of lyricism. Milijana Nikolic (Amneris) was dramatically resplendent throughout, although in the opening trio she was vocally outshone by her co-stars. Jud Arthur’s King had the necessary brazen throat; by comparison, Paul Whelan’s Ramfis felt a little light. The triumph scene, a pageant of gold and splendour, was appropriately excessive and wonderful, with the chorus in fine voice. The musical direction by Arvo Volmer was unobtrusively effective (nice to see six trumpeters given their moment front stage).

****1