The Semperoper Dresden’s new production of Verdi's Aida coincides with troubling times in the world. Ongoing caution regarding the pandemic was clear by distanced seating, which also highlighted the financial difficulties faced by opera companies. Heart-warmingly, the orchestra and chorus under the direction of Christian Thielemann began the evening with the Ukrainian national anthem, received respectfully by the standing audience. 

Krassimira Stoyanova (Aida)
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

Albeit commissioned for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 (and missing it by almost two years!), Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida deals with topics oddly relevant in the first months of 2022, such as nations at conflict with each other, love for the fatherland, dealings with prisoners of war and, inevitably in a romantic opera, personal relationships between members of two warring nations. However, actress and director Katharina Thalbach (she first claimed fame as one of the protagonists in Volker Schlöndorff’s iconic 1979 movie, The Tin Drum) resisted the temptation to politicise her concept. This was a fully traditional stage production – rather unusual in the era of the often-extravagant efforts for modernised Regietheater – emphasising the exotic with golden walls surrounding the stage, pyramid-shaped backgrounds, an Egyptian boat in the Nile scene and the King’s wedge-shaped beard. Stage sets and costumes were created by Ezio Toffolutti.

Quinn Kelsey (Amonasro), Krassimira Stoyanova (Aida) and ensemble
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

Unfortunately, the opportunities that Italian grand opera often creates were never quite realised. The customarily spectacular finale of Act 2 offers Verdi’s brilliant ballet music. This scene did include a parade of plundered treasures and the obligatory banners with Egyptian hieroglyphs but, alas, the stage was sparsely populated, the mock fighting of the slaves looking childishly simplified and the priestesses’ dance lacking synchronicity. Notwithstanding the Moorish male slaves’ acrobatic skills, this scene (along with most of the production) oscillated between the conventional and the tedious. A new production, which begins with a strong focus on the tall and menacing Ramfis standing next to the diminutive warrior hero; in which a middle-aged Amneris expresses her joy while girlishly spinning around; in which Amonasro demands his daughter’s attention by pointing with two fingers of his hand at his own eyes; or in which during the final scene – in the supposedly claustrophobic, enclosed tomb – a strong light shines on the protagonists’ face as they bid farewell to life and each other, can hardly claim relevance.

Georg Zeppenfeld (Ramfis) and Andreas Bauer Kanabas (King)
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

With his characteristic intense attention, Thielemann, Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden, securely guided his musicians, unerringly maintaining balance between individual voices as much as between stage and pit. The chorus, rehearsed by André Kellinghaus, has a large part to play in this opera and, even if its visual movements were mostly static, it sounded always rounded and clear. In the smaller roles of the priestess in the temple and the messenger, Ofeliya Pogosyan and Simeon Esper sounded fully reliable. As the King of Egypt, Andreas Bauer Kanabas, looked almost comical at times in the middle of the captured Ethiopians (it was not his fault: why would he ever walk amongst them?). Georg Zeppenfeld, by far the tallest figure on stage with the help of extremely high platform shoes, maintained his threatening presence on stage and vocally throughout as the High Priest, Ramfis. American baritone, Quinn Kelsey, excelled in the role Amonasro, the King of the Ethiopians; his plea in the finale of Act 2, “Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente” sounded especially noble and warm in timbre.

Oksana Volkova (Amneris) and ensemble
© Semperoper Dresden | Ludwig Olah

Of the three protagonists, Belarusian Oksana Volkova (Amneris) made the greatest impression. The dark hues of her mellow mezzo never lost resonance and her recitative opening Act 4 radiated a splendid mix of passion and internal torment. The duet between Francesco Meli’s Radamès and Volkova, also in Act 4, expressing their conflicting love interests, conveyed some of the most beautiful moments of this performance. Meli’s “Celeste Aida” sounded promisingly gentle; later however, he missed some of Verdi’s very explicit instructions regarding softer dynamics. The eponymous heroine, Aida, was presented by Bulgarian star soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, in perfect vocal condition. Her request to the gods to show her mercy, “Numi, pietà”, demonstrated lovingly her suffering between contradicting loyalties.

As a sign of the composer's sense of balance, the thrice repeated calls of Ramfis in Act 2 for war, “Guerra, guerra, guerra” were delicately balanced by Amneris’s final words, equally sung three times, at the very end of the opera: “Pace, pace, pace”. Like her, we pray for peace. “Pace t’imploro.”

This performance was reviewed from the ARTE video stream