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For anyone experiencing Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) for the first time, Aida cannot fail to impress; in fact, it would be downright churlish to resist its full frontal assault on the senses: the sea breeze off the Harbour, the stunning backdrop of Sydney’s skyline, stars, and a crescent moon; the glittering, kaleidoscope spectacle on the stage in front of you – from the giant bust of Nerfertiti to the ultra camp costumes, live camels, and now customary fireworks display. (On opening night the CEO of Opera Australia joked that there was currently no gold fabric left in Sydney; add to that any kind of sequined and reflective fabric.)
And then there’s the singing: Latonia Moore and Milijana Nikolic are full-diva knock-outs in their roles, and not much beats hearing a full chorus in this open air setting.
But Aida can’t help but pale in comparison to the three HOSH productions that have come before it, including director Gale Edwards’ 2013 hit Carmen and last year’s much-loved production of Madama Butterfly by Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus. Each were fabulous dramatic spectacles that also tore out your heart; crucially, each were popular, earworm-riddled operas with lots of familiar musical motifs.
Aida, which premiered in 1871, at the tail end of Verdi's career, is not one of his most accessible operas – but it has that spectacular Egyptian setting, an epic love triangle (between Egyptian princess Amneris, captive Ethiopian princess Aida, and Egyptian war hero Radamès) and a killer ending, both dramatically and musically. It also has several of the opera canon’s most exquisitely beautiful moments, including Radamès’ ‘Celeste Aida’ aria, and the scene-setting orchestral music that opens Act 2 and 3.
Edwards, a pro when it comes to staging big shows, from West End mega-musicals to a string of hits for Opera Australia, has judiciously worked with designer Mark Thompson to dial up the aesthetics on Aida – though it sometimes feels like an overwhelming clusterfuck of styles: Mardi Gras military meets Jenny Kee does Africa, and Egypt à la Katy Perry . The choreographic set-pieces, courtesy of Lucas Jervies, felt a little undercooked compared to previous years.
This Aida is set somewhere within the modern fascist context, and the costumes and military regalia of the Egyptian officers, juxtaposed with the larger than life stage architecture and the iconography of ancient Egyptian mysticism, easily conjures a menacing yet seductively epic Nuremburg-rally atmosphere. Against the propaganda of the Egyptian state and the relentlessly revolutionary mantra of the Ethiopian rebels, Aida and Radamès – and Amneris too, tragically – struggle to assert the rights of pure or romantic love.
The production is well conceived, and it wants to be a tearjerker – but the tragic, romantic heart of Verdi’s opera gets a little lost in the spectacle.