After Philipp Himmelmann’s triumphant “Tosca,” which played on the Bregenz Festival’s humongous lake stage in 2007 and 2008, proved that you can tell an intimate story while using mind-boggling stage technology, Graham Vick’s new “Aida” has taken a giant leap backward.
“Aida,” after all, is the story of a very human love triangle — that of Amneris (Iano Tamar), her unrequited love for Radames (Rubens Pelizzari), and his love for Aida (Tatiana Serjan) — among some very high-profile people: Amneris is the daughter of the King of Egypt (Kevin Short), Radames is his country’s warrior hero, and Aida a slave, but actually the daughter of Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia (Iain Paterson).
Intimate confrontations of love and betrayal alternate with the bombastic public scenes that have made this the most popular opera ever written, culminating in the great “Triumphal Scene,” its trumpet fanfare right up there with the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth.
While Vick and his designer Paul Brown have created a true spectacle, it is often to the detriment of both story and music.
Vick sets “Aida” in a decadent, crumbling contemporary society that keeps its slaves on leashes, their heads covered with black bags. The set resembles the contents of a junkyard strewn over a vast staircase until two giant construction cranes, the kind used for building skyscrapers, are put into action, lifting scenic elements to assemble a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
For the “Triumphal Scene,” the arrangement resembles nothing less than the Statue of Liberty, painted azure blue and covered with blue stars, several points of her crown cracked, but her torch raised high into the night sky with the King perched atop. Radames, victorious against the Ethiopian, enters atop a giant golden elephant that floats in on the lake (his earlier exit to battle was made via speedboat).
But Vick has devised so much distracting business that it spills off the stage into the lake (Amonasro spends a significant part of act three up to his shoulders in it) and into the 7,000-seat arena, and Brown’s buzzing, whirling and clanging stage machinery makes it difficult to focus on — or even locate — who’s singing.
The biggest injustice to Verdi comes from conductor Carlo Rizzi. Since the Bregenz stage faces west, performances cannot begin until sundown (9:15 p.m. in July, 9 p.m. in August). With public transportation stopping around midnight and the virtual impossibility of getting 7,000 people out and back into the arena for an intermission, shows are required to run about two hours uninterrupted.
“Aida” contains about 160 minutes of music. To fit Bregenz’s template, Rizzi has sliced the opera down to 127 minutes. “Highlights from ‘Aida’ ” might be a better title. In addition, his tempos are frequently insanely fast, missing the score’s poetry and mystery, which are such an important contrast to its huge ensembles. The whole enterprise smacks of “Let’s get ’em in, give ’em a show, and get ’em out.” There are hundreds of other popular operas that comfortably fit the two-hour format (such as “Tosca”), so this hack job on “Aida” is even more puzzling.
Great Verdi voices are in short supply these days and, despite some lovely moments, Serjan simply doesn’t have the dramatic chops for Aida. Pelizzari, too, shows sweet, heroic tone but grows tentative the higher the vocal line. Paterson impresses with true Verdian sonority.
But it’s Tamar, until now a soprano, who steals the show as the haughty princess. Displaying an unbridled, powerhouse mezzo soprano with portals-of-doom bottom notes and acting up a storm, she makes Amneris truly memorable.