What a fabulous night, seeing Aida on Sydney harbour – albeit wrapped in a big blue plastic poncho to keep off the torrential rain, the backdrop of the stage all the more vivid with flashes of lightening streaking across the sky and thunder clapping loudly overhead! Even as the rain poured down the production continued – the most spectacular scene being the Triumphal parade where Ramades came on stage on a camel! I overheard a lady remark at the end that she thought it was the silliest opera she had ever seen! I felt she had missed the plot somehow! It was spectacular and moving, vast and intimate all at the same time, everything I believe an opera should be!
This is what Gale Edwards, the director, had to say about her vision of Verdi’s Aida:
“I believe the opera is about a triumph of love in a world that forbids it, a world grounded in war, not on peace. Do these things sound contemporary, relevant? You only have to turn on the news every night and you’ll see all of these themes.”
“I have a responsibility to deliver glamour, and exoticism, and spectacle, and a responsibility to deliver romance and love – there’s a lot of things to honour in Aida itself. But I’m also interested in the politics of the piece,” Edwards says.
At the heart of it all is the love story between Aida and Radamès – the enslaved Ethiopian princess, and the Egyptian hero chosen to lead his people to victory over hers. “But that love is forbidden, because it crosses nations and status. Radamès can’t possibly love a slave,” Edwards explains. And the figure of Amneris, the Egyptian princess who loves Radamès, looms over it all.
“She’s all powerful, she’s a pampered pet, she’s a controller, she is manipulative and cunning. But she’s also a woman, with a heart. She can click her fingers and have somebody executed at will but what she can’t control, and she can’t buy, is Radamès’ love. No matter how she tries to destroy his love for her slave girl, and claim him for her own, he stays loyal.”
The enduring relevance of each of these themes pushed Edwards to set the opera in no particular time, a time where one character can carry a machine gun and another can ride in a chariot and images from classical and modern Egypt blend unashamedly. There’s a military feel to the costumes and set, there’s glamour and ostentatious wealth in the costumes of the Egyptians, there’s colour and beauty and movement in the costumes of the Ethiopians, which draw on the colours of Africa.
Visually, the combination will be thrilling to see, Edwards says.
The harbour stage offers all kinds of challenges – dramatically and logistically. Purpose built on the harbour each year with an orchestra pit concealed beneath the stage, there is very little in the way of wings. “I’ve had the opportunity to play in that space with Carmen, and work out a few things. For example, it takes one and a half minutes for a chorus member to get from their dressing room to the stage. There’s no storage space. Cranes move. These practical considerations all affect how you stage a work.”
While Edwards treated Carmen almost as a musical, with all the energy, dancing, running and jumping that offers, Aida is a different beast, she says, and demands a different approach. “It’s static, it’s monumental. Nobody will run across the stage!”
But there is spectacle, and emotion, and drama, and it is Edwards’ job to stage those moments in a way that involves the whole audience. “You have to be careful about finding that imagery, you have to stage duets and trios without closing the stage down, without letting your singers disappear.”
Edwards doesn’t sound remotely daunted by the challenge – in contrast, she’s overflowing with energy and excitement. “Opera on Sydney Harbour is the best possible way to see opera,” Edwards says. “You get Verdi’s legendary music and some of the world’s greatest opera singers, to sing it. That alone would be enough to come, but you have this amazing production with fabulous costumes and an exciting set by Mark Thompson. And most importantly, you have this whole experience outside. You’re looking at Sydney in the background, with the buildings and the Sydney Opera House and the bridge lit up. The water glitters in the moonlight, and the boats go past. We build restaurants! So you can buy your champagne and your gourmet food and sit and eat and drink and watch the opera.”
“The show is set within a huge landscape of other things – it’s a beautiful way to see this wonderful opera.”
And here is a link to some fascinating numbers in relation to the building of the set and other facts for this production of Aida.