A Reconfigured ‘Aida,’ As Critique Of War In Male-Controlled World

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Brian Jagde as Radames and Elena Stikhina as Aida in the Bavarian State Opera production of ‘Aida’ (Photos courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera)

MUNICH — As someone who was weaned on acoustic 78s of Caruso, Galli-Curci, and Tetrazzini, I’ve always believed that in opera, singers and their art deserve primary attention. Nonetheless, Damiano Michieletto’s production of Verdi’s Aida at Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera), co-created with set designer Paolo Fantin, costume designer Carla Teti, and lighting designer Alessandro Carletti, was so wrenching in the most elemental and profound ways that it informed every aspect of Verdi’s score and Antonio Ghislanzoni’s libretto.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris

Seen May 21, just days after opening night, the opera began as conductor Daniele Rustioni, who serves as the company’s principal guest conductor, summoned forth the orchestra’s marvelously translucent strings at the start of the Prelude. At the same time, the scene opened on what looked like a cross between a war-battered high school gymnasium that served as a shelter and an all-purpose refugee camp. Instead of the high pageantry, gold ornaments, and royal excess associated with most traditional productions, children innocently played with each other and their mothers and nurses as the high priest Ramfis (Alexander Köpeczi), dressed in a long black, modern leather coat strode about the stage like an ominous, lurking presence and sang in a penetrating voice drenched in coal.

As more characters appeared on the scene, the only thing that differentiated “the people” from Egyptian royalty is that the former wore casual, unquestionably declassé modern clothes, and those who ruled wore suits or, in the case of Amneris (Anita Rachvelishvili), daughter of the King (Alexandros Stavrakakis), a skirt, jacket, and high heels.

While I won’t give away too many of the production’s surprises, several themes began to emerge. The first was how naïve and clueless the slave girl Aida (Elena Stikhina), daughter of the soon-to-be defeated in battle Ethiopian King Amonasro (George Petean), was. Another was how all the women and children in the production were manipulated and controlled by the defenders of the patriarchal hierarchy. Yet another was the terrible cost of war and the false notion that with nominal victory comes liberation. Every character in this opera, from the so-called triumphant to the ultimately sacrificed, was at various times covered (literally) by the spoils of war.

George Petean as Amonasro

Instead of forcing us to sit through several prolonged and inevitably boring ballets, Michieletto and choreographer Thomas Wilhelm transformed them into hollow, ironic displays of victory with minimal dancing. The Triumphal March was deeply moving as it made explicit the suffering, grief, pain, and death behind every medal pinned on the breast of a scarred or disfigured soldier. Rocafilm’s videos during the Triumphal Scene were central to the production’s impact.

Nor was the transformation of Aida into a critique of war and male domination in the least bit forced. Rather, the conception was so brilliantly conceived and all of one piece that it seemed as though it had lain dormant in music and libretto for well over a century, awaiting the right genius to tie all the elements together and bring the opera’s subtext to the fore.

It helped that the voices of Radames (tenor Brian Jagde), the supposedly victorious General of the Egyptian forces, and Aida, his secret love, were sufficiently distinct and opposite to serve as gender archetypes. Jagde was strong, clear, and secure throughout his range. Though his tone and volume were unvarying — his lack of dynamic modulation or flexibility of tempo in his opening aria, “Celeste Aida,” generated lackluster applause — he sang with perfect legato. By polishing the end of every phrase and consistently displaying glistening highs, he transcended the stereotype of the bull pushing his way through.

Stikhina’s Aida seemed more lyric than spinto. Every note, including her high Cs, bespoke innocent sweetness. Her voice may have been mostly devoid of the dark, dramatic undertones of many an Aida, and her high notes may not have floated and shimmered in the manner of Leontyne Price and some of her great predecessors, including Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, but they had a purity all their own that declared Aida’s ultimate naiveté and innocence. By assuming a bent-over posture, in marked contrast to the erect posture of Radames, Ramfis, Amneris, and the King of Egypt (a very erect, somewhat stolid Stavrakakis), Stikhina underscored her victimhood.

Besides a few edgy highs in her most exposed passages, Rachvelishvili sang marvelously. Eschewing the dark steel and bottomless low tones of some of her predecessors, she mixed cunning with fragility and vengeance with regret. Hers was the most human Amneris I’ve ever witnessed.

Anita Rachvelishvili, center, as Amneris and Brian Jagde as Radames

While some might consider Michieletto’s commentary on the hypocrisy of the priesthood a bit heavy-handed, it was presented so brazenly that it seemed less clichéd than telling. Köpeczi was marvelous in this regard, with both voice and body language erasing the lines between high priest, mafioso ringleader, and potential rapist. When he told Amneris, in the beginning of Act Three, that he would stay by her side as she prays all night, she shuddered in the knowledge of what might transpire. His actions at opera’s end, which I shall not detail, were despicable. Katharina Ortmann and Mattia Palma deserve kudos for their dramaturgy. 

Johannes Knecht’s chorus sang superbly, and the orchestra sounded marvelous. Though I’ve attended Bayerische Staatsoper on two previous occasions, I’d forgotten just how clear and vibrant its acoustics are on orchestra level. (I was in row 13.)

I wish Rustioni had allowed his singers more freedom, as befits opera in grand romantic tradition, but it takes a very strong artist these days to break free of strict time and bend phrases as heart and soul dictate. Instead, it was the production that broke free of convention yet remained faithful to the opera’s essence in ways that deepened Aida’s impact. Bravo to all.