Aïda, Giuseppe Verdi's 1871 opera about an Ethiopian princess serving as a palace slave in Egypt, has easily stood the test of time. And it's been tested a lot, such as by the cheesy Disney Broadway adaptation, with songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. Now Berkeley Opera tests out its own reimagining of the Verdi version in a contemporary staging by Yuval Sharon, with artistic director Jonathan Khuner at the baton.
Sung in the original Italian, this isn't just a modern-dress Aïda. First of all, they lose the whole Egypt thing. Now it's simply a contemporary nation symbolized by a stylized black-and-white sun rising within a triangle on an otherwise red flag, at war with another country whose flag is the reverse: a triangular red-and-white sun in a semicircle on a black background. Chisato Uno's set is spare and elegant, with a triangular gun rack on the white walls and a bare minimum of classy furnishings. A much dingier attic above serves as torture chamber, site for illicit trysts, electronic surveillance center, and tomb only the last of which is usually called for. Costumer Vincent gives the men natty business suits and the maids smart uniforms, but for some reason the princess Amneris is given a frumpy robe and fuzzy slippers that make her look more like a boozy aunt than a romantic rival, and the head-banded 1980s hairstyle doesn't help.
There's a lot that's effective about the staging, starting with the line of maids crawling along and scrubbing the floor as the music begins. Men in suits walk by deep in conversation, including one powerfully striding CEO type followed by an eager-to-please, chubby junior executive who perhaps hopes to wriggle his way into middle management. These two, it turns out, are the high priest Ramfis and the heroic Radamés, who will soon lead the troops into battle.
Kevin Courtemanche has a lovely tenor, but it's a bit hard to buy him as the eager young war hero, and his passion for Aïda is so well concealed that it could pass for catatonia. Fortunately, this production calls for him to return from the war a broken man in a wheelchair, and from then on his glazed, empty look works mostly to his advantage, particularly in his bitter duet with Amneris after everything goes to hell. Crimes against fashion aside, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Roderer is a firecracker as Amneris, with a particularly powerful voice. She's winningly crafty in tricking Aïda into revealing her love, and she is formidable in her repentance.
Soprano Juyeon Song is a particularly helpless and subservient Aïda, serving in such stony-faced silence that when she bursts forth with her anguish it seems to come out of nowhere. She sings the part beautifully but never commands the stage so much as shrinks into it. Still, it's touching when she bewails that very helplessness, torn between love of her country and passion for the man sent to ravage it. Bass-baritone William Pickersgill is suitably sinister as Ramfis, the power behind the throne, while the king (Paul Cheak) just smiles for the camera. Baritone Jo Vincent Parks lends weight to Aïda's father Amonasro, a POW concealing his identity as the enemy king.
The touches of contemporary excess ensure that it never becomes boring, but it often becomes silly. High priest Ramfis humps the high priestess (soprano Margaret Valeriano) in a variety of positions while Amneris gets a facial and mani-pedi from the maids. The homecoming of Radamés is particularly over the top, with an elaborate video and photo ops, the unfurling of a "Missione Compuita!" banner, and the artistic director's 11-year-old daughter Charlotte Khuner doing an adorable Shirley Temple dance with a bayonet and a rag doll of the heathen enemy that she shoots, stabs, kicks, punches and chokes.
There's a lot of gratuitous violence in this Aïda. Radamés' send-off amid prayers to the gods for victory is staged as the funeral of a fresh-faced soldier whom we can see being tortured to death upstairs at the same time. Aïda bargains with her lover while holding a gun to her head, raising the question of whether the new land she wants him to run away to with her is in this world or the next. Even the tragic final scene is overshadowed by the unexpected outbreak of revolution. Is it interesting? You bet. Is it amusing? It's good for a chuckle. Is it Aïda? Not really.
There's nothing wrong with rethinking the classics, but it's problematic when the interpretation works against the impact of the original. The extra elements of political satire are diverting in their own right, but ultimately diversion is a problem. They distract from Verdi's bewitching music that one usually walks away humming, and they distract from the tragic love story. The elements of this Aïda are often quite strong, but this is a case where more is less.
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