Get me to an opera house: Aida On Sydney Harbour reviewed

Plus: a claustrophobic double bill at the Arcola Theatre courtesy of the Grimeborn opera festival

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

Aida on Sydney Harbour

U, Selected Cinemas

The Medium; The Wanton Sublime

Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre

In anyone’s hands, Verdi’s Aida is not the easiest opera to raise up to greatness on the stage. How does a director spotlight hidden subtleties, musical or dramatic, in a libretto and subject so easily swamped by the spectacle of marching breastplates, roaring divas, Egyptian bling and the aroma and sway of live camels? Novice audiences may have their own problems, grappling with characters named Aida, Amneris, Amonasro, Radamès, Ramfis — almost always A and R. If only the librettist, Antonio Ghislanzoni, had called someone Doris.

Imagine, then, the difficulties faced when the opera is performed by Opera Australia on a wide-open platform, built over water, at this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. This filmed record, in UK cinemas for one evening only on 15 September, offers a vivid document of the company’s struggle to bring Verdi’s Egyptian monster to heel. Stage director Gale Edwards may initially have had those subtleties in mind. But they can hardly surface in an unfocused production where the garishly costumed cast are easily dwarfed by the stage’s huge Nefertiti-like head, useless stacks of oil drums, and a night sky that twinkles with skyscrapers. The vast performing space is at least convenient for Lucas Jervies’s ballets, even when they suggest we’ve dropped into one of those dodgy nightclubs formerly frequented by Prince Harry. But it’s terrible for Radamès and Aida’s last tender moments in a stifling vault. What vault?

Extra disenchantment arrives with the film’s ruthless sound design, scrubbed clean of all the ambient noises, even footsteps, that might convey that the performance you’re watching has been recorded live. Instead, voices and Brian Castles-Onion’s orchestra (beavering away under the stage) exist in a weird vacuum. Low on tension at first, Latonia Moore’s Aida increases in power and emotional throb as the opera proceeds. Walter Fraccaro’s Radamès stays disappointing, fielding a voice that is beginning to resemble a worn carpet — not a handicap for all roles, but a definite problem here. Milijana Nikolic follows the Liz Taylor school of acting and make-up as Amneris, Aida’s jealous mistress; but the histrionics suit, adding a frisson sadly missed when the points of interest dwindle to our hero and heroine facing asphyxiation in an invisible vault or the Marriott Hotel sign’s pixie glow, piercing the Sydney skyline. Take me into an opera house, please.

No eyes could wander during Inside Intelligence’s double bill featured in the Grimeborn opera festival at the Arcola Theatre. For Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Medium, the composer’s wishes were perfectly realised: ‘To be most effective,’ he wrote, ‘the work should be performed to a small audience in fairly claustrophobic circumstances.’ We sat in the bricked dungeon of the Arcola’s basement, with the set reduced to a single chair, the costume chiefly a fortune-teller’s shawl, and the audience near enough to have their palms read. Maxwell Davies wrote the words and music of this unaccompanied monologue in 1981 for the unique talents of mezzo Mary Thomas; and this rare revival served as a terrific showcase for the vocal resources and stamina of the American Hai-Ting Chinn.

Over 40 minutes she never flinched, unlike the character portrayed — a Victorian fortune-teller and medium who quickly fractures into different personalities, one of them possibly murderous, spewing out verbal bile en route like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. ‘Come, come,’ she sang at one point, ‘breathe into my apertures warmly.’ I resisted the challenge stoutly, and felt largely unmoved by this particular example of Maxwell Davies’s fascination with musical schizophrenia, a thin exercise next to the baroque punch of Eight Songs for a Mad King.

It was equally difficult to take home insights from Tarik O’Regan’s The Wanton Sublime, given its European première by Chinn and the nine excellent musicians of the Orpheus Sinfonia, conducted by Andrew Griffiths. The evening’s director, Robert Shaw, had his hands tied again. The performing space was just a runway, cutting through musicians who kicked up such a rumpus that many of Chinn’s words were left indistinct. The text, drawn from a 2006 volume by the American poet Anna Rabinowitz, circled round the figure of the Virgin Mary and mused on femininity and motherhood in the modern world. Further than that I wouldn’t like to say, as I didn’t carry an ear trumpet.

Yet for all the sound’s imbalance and fuzz, O’Regan’s music had an attractive drive and ease that Maxwell Davies purposefully denied himself in The Medium. Precise words apart, Chinn’s powerful voice enjoyed another workout, sometimes enhanced by an electronic echo — an effect at its most magical in the final tapestry of vocalise. Plenty of variety and colour, too, from Griffiths’ ensemble, rooted in strings, but regularly pricked with electric guitars, flute doubling piccolo, and the stardust of percussion. Who needed Sydney Harbour with all this?

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