Canadian Opera Updates Aida

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On October 9 I attended the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Verdi’s Aida. Indeed, it was a very new production, directed by Tim Albery, with sets and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler and Jon Morrell, respectively. In their hands, Verdi’s ancient Egypt was transplanted to the later 20th century. Was it the 1960s? The 1980s? It was hard to tell.

Call it Regietheater or call it Eurotrash – the "updating" of operas has been around for a while now, and it looks like the fashion will be with us for a while longer (although I doubt it will last forever). Personally, I’ve never been for or against this sort of thing per se: when it’s done well the result is brilliantly insightful; when it’s done poorly the result is self-indulgent claptrap. And there are a million shades of gray in between.

Albery and Co. clearly did not lack for material to support their concept. Half a century of Mideast conflicts gave them plenty of ways to connect Verdi’s opera of 1871 with the contemporary world: strutting generals and double-dealing palace politics, set in a shallow world of glitz and glamour.

This outpouring of ideas had a salutary effect: it kept the audience on the edge of its collective seat, wondering what was going to happen next. And, to be sure, there was never a dull moment. But something was lost in the translation: the 19th-century’s fascination with the grandeur and mysticism of Pharaohic Egypt. By comparison, Albery’s vision was tawdry and cynical. And sometimes it was just plain weird – like the Egyptians’ battle flag, which resembled a souvenir towel from a handgun convention.

Fortunately, others in the production approached things differently. Sondra Ravanovsky was triumphant as Aida, singing with a rich yet pure tone and an impressive dynamic range. This was her first Aida – and her first appearance with the COC, although the American soprano has lived in Canada for a decade. About a week before opening night she told a Toronto journalist (me) that she approached the opera with some trepidation. She also said she was "trying the role out" in Toronto, which was perhaps a tad demeaning (the implication being that if things didn’t go well it wouldn’t much matter because it was just Toronto). Happily, her idea of trying a role out seems to be singing it full throttle.

Vocally and dramatically, mezzo Jill Grove was Radvanovsky’s equal as Amneris, and fairly stole the show in the last act. Unfortunately, some of men tended to be uneven. Rosario La Spina, as Radames, had a bright, ringing tenor voice, but didn’t always seem entirely on top of things. (There was an embarrassing crack at the end of "Celeste Aida.") Bass Alain Coulombe, as the Pharaoh, seemed to be struggling with issues of pitch and breath control. However, bass Philip Ens (Ramfis) and baritone Scott Hendricks (Amonasro) were solid and secure.

Conductor Johannes Debus led a committed, no-nonsense performance. The COC Orchestra and Chorus responded with agility to his sudden and dramatic changes of tempo.

Yet, in the end, this was not so much a production of Verdi’s Aida, as a production about Verdi’s Aida, entombed alive with its own ironic commentary. It was an intriguing and thought-provoking evening of theatre, but not an entirely satisfying one.