By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh
They cried “Bravo!” for the leads: Sondra Radvanovsky (Aida), Rosario La Spina (Radames), Jill Grove (Amneris) and Scott Hendricks (Amonarsro).
They cried “Bravo!” for conductor Johannes Debus and his orchestra.
But when director Tim Albery and the design team joined the cast for the curtain call at the Canadian Opera Company’s season-opening performance of Verdi’s Aida on Oct. 2, the audience booed.
The boos didn’t last very long — this is Canada after all — but they were unmistakably sounds of disapproval and they were vehement.
“The music is great, but the set is disgusting,” a boo leader said to his friends.
Albery, a Toronto resident, is a veteran director behind numerous critically acclaimed operatic productions, including COC’s War and Peace in 2008 and the recent premieres of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna.
This Aida, a new COC production of the opera in 25 years, is a modern twist of the Egyptian tragedy in that it bears a strong military (gun) presence with Mad Men-like vibes but minus the glam. It’s set in a war-torn country that doesn’t try to depict the Memphis of ancient or future Egypt and the ordinary costumes are plainer than white robes and kilts.
Personally, I have no problem with Albery’s stark concept behind the set. It’s always refreshing to see a current and different take on a beloved piece of work like Aida, especially when it tells the story just as powerful as any traditional, more opulent set, sometimes more to the point.
A good example is the relatively insignificant scene of the men readying themselves to go into battle with prayer and ritual at the Temple of Vulcan. This scene doesn’t really serve any purpose in the story line, but the music is sensual and gypsy-like, with a ghostly female chorus singing modal tunes off-stage and harps strumming full force in the pit.
Here, Albery gives us five sexy priestesses dressed in sparkling cat-woman bodysuits and performing sacred dances in three-inch heels behind a glass wall. The stage was lighted red and the men looked on hypnotically; some took off their shirts, put on armour gears, and applied grease over each other’s naked chest and face as if willed by voodoo.
They were aroused, they were ready to kill.
Radvanovsky, making her COC and Aida debut, deserved the prolonged clapping and “Bravo!” shouts at the end of all her big arias. The American-born, Toronto-based soprano has a powerful control of her bursting voice that carried well beyond the back of the hall in all its glory, fortissimo or pianissimo. She is one Aida many will remember for a long time to come.
Australian tenor Rosario La Spina also made a solid COC debut in the role of Radames, the Egyptian general in love with Aida. He sounded majestic without being forceful.
American mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, another COC debutant, delivered a strong performance in the role of Amneris, particularly in Act 4, when she soared and owned the depressing prison set on stage and gave it life.
After his recent success as Iago in COC’s Otello, American baritone Scott Hendricks made a triumphant return singing Amonarsro, Aida’s father.
Debus and the COC orchestra in the pit gave Verdi’s music its due course, with rich sounds and unreformed passion. But this presented a sharp contrast to the stripped down set on stage framed with cheap chairs, painted wall river in the Nile scene (fake lake?) and Value Village-inspired clothes.
Aida is supposed to be an easily liked opera with great tunes, exciting chorus scenes, and lots of spectacles. To mess with such a work on opening night can often prove to be fatal, as was the case here. So kudos to the COC for kicking off a new season with a bold and out-of-favour production.
Aida continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until Nov. 5.