This past August witnessed the opening of two distinct productions of Verdi’s historic opera AIDA, one in Salzburg, Austria, and the other in Washington, DC. Each was directed by a woman. Shirin Neshat, a photographer and video artist directed her first opera, the Salzburg Festival version, under the watchful conducting of Riccardo Muti, the purist keeper of All Things Verdi, while Francesca Zambello directed the Washington National Opera version at the Kennedy Center, which boasted the “designs” of RENTA, a young and “fashionable” graffiti artist.
Together the productions addressed a problem posed by the distinguished British theater historian A.M. Nagler
Monumental or intimate? Removed from time or close to it? The fate of this opera is in the balance. I see no reason for neglecting the Egyptian components. After all, the libretto speaks of pharaohs, and at moments the music has a delicate, exotic flavor. Therefore, the exotic element needs only be hinted at by the designer. We have long outgrown the didactic museums-tour approach. However, a valid AIDA model for our times is still lacking[i].
Each AIDA presented a different model and each brought accompanying disappointments.
Neshat’s AIDA naturally incorporated moving filmic images in the action. Projected onto the various surfaces of Christian Schmidt’s Appian-like settings and Tatyana van Watlum’s eclectic middle eastern costumes, the action of the drama moved easily and dynamically. The scenery and costumes played important roles in advancing the characters’ journeys through the dramatic action.
Vivid and startling stage pictures resulted which would have delighted the Swiss design pioneer Adolph Appia (1862-1928).
With both La Mise en scène du drame Wagnérien (1895; “The Staging of the Wagnerian Drama”) and Die Musik und die Inszenierung (1899; “Music and Staging”), Appia rejected the painted flat scenery dominating opera production at the time. He advocated moving, changeable, and flexible three-dimensional scenic pieces which found dynamic harmony with the three-dimensional actors. Plastic and fluid stage lighting would integrate the whole stage picture. Fulfilling the Appian principles, Neshat’s visual landscape was as expressive to the eye as Verdi’s music was to the ear.
With one important exception.
The actors behaved as if frozen in amber. They seemed to be adopting nineteenth century Delsartian poses, almost seeking to become living hieroglyphs. As a result, the very capable actors seem intimidated by the production. Anna Netrebko, perhaps suffering from her “Egyptian” make up and rigid poses, did not create yet another historic dramatic characterization. Her singing was, of course, superb, but audiences have come to expect one monumental interpretation after another. Her director seemed to frustrate any hope Ms. Netrebko may have had to give the role her own special zest.
Meanwhile, in Washington, despite all the acclaim, RENTA’s designs proved to be throwbacks to the nineteenth century’s flat drops. Though they are, in this production, cut up into pieces, they remained essentially two-dimensional. As a result, they animated neither the opera’s dramatic arc nor the character’ evolving relationships. They were static and uninvolved in the action. The characters sang well, but that is all. Any ebb or flow of character psychology was not in evidence. As a result, long stretches of the opera were static and, consequently, boring repetitions and reiterations.
Each production illustrated the difficulty of integrating acting with singing, setting with costume, and a dynamic visual environment with evolving character development. Two partial successes, each worth seeing.
[i] A.M. Nagler. Misdirection. Opera Direction in the Twentieth Century. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1981, p. 93.
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