“If my dream might come true! An army of brave men, led by me – victory, and the applause of all Memphis! To return to you, my sweet Aida,
decked with the victor’s laurels, to say. ‘I fought, I won for you!’”
“Peace, I implore of you! Peace, peace, peace!”
These two opposing pleas open and close Aida, Verdi’s 1871 opera, that contains not less than three wars between the Ethiopians and the Egyptians. The first plea is sung by Radames, captain of the Egyptian guard, as an introduction to his most famous love aria “Heavenly Aida” which he addresses to the captured Ethiopian Princess. The second is sung by Egyptian princess Amneris, as she bids farewell to the dying lovers Radames and Aida.
It seems that director Stathis Livathinos (artistic director of the Greek National Theatre) based his interpretation of the opera on the conflict between these two sentiments. In one the most striking moments of the the Tel Aviv Opera production, what was originally written as dance music to celebrate Radamès’ victory on the Ethiopian army, is presented as a choreography of slave women cleaning the floor down on their knees, dominated by Egyptian mistresses. Another outstanding scene is the famous victory march, usually presented as a parade of trophies. In Livathinos’ production, however, instead of a march we see only the onlookers who watch an invisible parade, cheering and waiving little flags. Six trumpeters who stand on both sides of the auditorium seem to mark the route of the parade. It is as if the audience members were the returning soldiers.
Turning the gaze away from the euphoria of the winners to the suffering of the victims, endows this production with a series of very powerful moments. Most of them are found in the second act of the opera. Livathinos does wonders with mass scenes in which the movement of the chorus and the dancers is integrated into a striking whole. However, he seems less interested in the intimate scenes in which only the leads are on stage.
The set designed by Aelxander Polzin is spare. Much of the action takes place on something that looks like a big rock in the middle of the stage, probably symbolizing the pointlessness of constantly fighting over a piece of land. A big square tile with a hole in the center is hung above the singers throughout the performance, as if foreshadowing the heroes’ dire fate. In the last scene it turns into the grave in which Aida and Radames will die together. This sparse scenery becomes a bit boring in the fourth act, even as the roof finally caves down, as expected. It might have worked better if the three leads were sublime singers, but only one of them comes close to that definition.
The Italian soprano Monica Zanettin has a pure lyrical voice, and she sings beautifully in the role of Aida. However, she did hit her limit in one crucial high note when singing Aida’s great aria of longing, “O patria mia”, in the beginning of the third act. Tenor Leonardo Caimi as Radames has a pleasant voice, but he struggled with “Heavenly Aida” which comes early on, before he had a chance to warm up. Their final duet, however, was quite beautiful. The jealous princess Amneris, who repents in the end, is a great dramatic challenge, and Lithuanian mezzo soprano Justina Gringyte wasn’t up to it. Her voice sounded muffled through the first half of the opera. She, too, improved later in the evening, but the staging of the potentially heartbreaking final scene, in which the three leads sing together – the lovers languishing in the grave while Amneris is praying for peace above ground – didn’t achieve celestial heights.
In the earlier mass scenes, The Israeli Opera Chorus sounded excellent under the direction of Assaf Benraf. The orchestra conducted by Giuliano Carella was also strong, though perhaps too strong, as it sometimes overpowered the voices of the singers. All in all, the first half of the opera was a great triumph of concept and execution, and even if the intimate scenes were not as breathtaking, this unique production is definitely worth catching.
- Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
- Libretto: Antonio Ghislanzoni
- Director: Stathis Livathinos
- Conductor: Giuliano Carella
- Sung in Italian with Hebrew and English surtitles
- Cast includes Monica Zanettin, Leonardo Caimi, Justina Gringyte
- The Israeli Opera Tel-Aviv-Yafo האופרה הישראלית תל-אביב-יפו
- Until: 09 July 2022
- Running time: 3hrs including interval