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Friday, November 20, 2009

A Day At The Opera - AIDA without Elephants

I've used this opera in my fiction, in a short story called "Nefer", in which a cat mummy follows a kid home from the museum, then proceeds to wreck the arena production of Aida in which her ballet class is taking part. The story appeared in a short anthology for kids, one of the Spinouts series edited by Meredith Costain and Paul Collins.

Also, I am very familiar with the music, because in my early teens I bought a boxed set with Leontyne Price in the title role, and saw the very old film in which Sophia Loren was darkened and someone else sang for her.

Till today,though, I had never seen it on stage. The Australian Opera tended not to do it, presumably because of the expense of the sets and such.

In 2009, it's still expensive, with the large chorus and costumes, but the sets are no longer an issue. Most of it is projected on to backdrops, including strips of fabric posing as Egyptian columns. Very clever, and they can get on with the singing and dancing (the choreographer was the legendary Graeme Murphy). After this, they will have the costumes and the software to do the projection, so the main expense will be the performers. You don't need elephants, no matter what the old stories say!

Of course the story is silly - opera plots always are. Terry Pratchett certainly had fun sending them up in his novel Maskerade.

Aida loves Radames. Radames loves Aida. Princess Amneris also loves Radames. Aida is a captive Ethiopian princess (but keeping her ID secret, very sensibly). After Radames has gone to fight her homeland and she has sung about it a lot, he comes back and Princess Amneris says, "Nyah, nyah, I'm the Pharoah's daughter and I'm having him." But Aida's Dad is captured and manages to persuade her to winkle military secrets out from her boyfriend, who is then arrested and sentenced to death, despite Amneris's pleas for the idiot to defend himself. Fortunately for all the singing in the last scene, he is sentenced to live burial and he and Aida, who has returned to die with him, can do some final singing, while Amneris sings above them on a spectacular double stage.

In this production, they did have to sling a bridge across the stage to get in the double stage scene.

The fanfares in the Grand March were played by six trumpeters in Egyptian costume on the stage - were they regular members of the orchestra, I wonder, or hired for the occasion? Anyway, it looked good.

Amneris looked good, as did the High Priest Ramfis. Aida was, as the lady next to me described her, a "rather solid girl". I was immediately reminded of Rita Hunter, a fabulous singer of many years ago, whose personality was as huge as her body. She played Abigaille in Nabucco and Norma in the Bellini opera. But her voice made you forget her size. And this one had a fine voice too. (Radames was also rather solidly built.)

Only trouble was, Aida didn't look remotely Ethiopian, apart from a wig. I mean, I know what Ethiopians generally look like. We have several kids from that country at my school. They're generally not as dark as the Sudanese kids, but still, they're - well, dark. Was it the recent issue over white people here going blackface on a TV skit, offending a visiting American? I think the singer was American. Had they decided to be "unconventional"? Did it not go well with the sets?

Hard to tell, but it made her less convincing to me.

And now, having seen the opera on stage, I don't feel the need to see it again. I'm just as happy to listen to a good recording. I have lost my enjoyment of both Il Trovatore (another silly storyline) and Madama Butterfly (not so silly, but they've done it too many times) because Melbourne tends to get all the repeats, while Sydney gets the new productions. I don't want to lose my taste for this one.

Final opera for the year is Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, which should be good fun. Stand by.

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