An unexpectedly good performance of Verdi’s Aida at the Armenian National Opera this evening. Unexpected, I suppose, only because I did not expect anything going in, but came out quite pleased.
The program was only provided in Armenian tonight, and since I cannot even read the alphabet, I do not know who sang except for Amonasro, who received star billing on the English-language website: Zurab Bukhradze from Georgia. He certainly had the largest voice (and was taller than everyone else in the cast, so literally stood out). The rest of the cast were not exactly at his level, but all turned in solid performances. Their voices were generally pleasant, although each of the cast members had dry moments. The Aida also had a pleasant voice, not dry but with a warble in her upper register when she sang at volume. Radames was the smallest of the cast members, and had the smallest voice, which did not always project quite as well.
The best performance, though, emerged from the pit. Eduard Diadura, a guest conductor from Russia, led a very sensible musical production. On one hand, he knew when to modulate the orchestra in order not to overwhelm the singers, making the orchestra almost unnoticeable to allow the audience to focus on the singing, but on the other he had the orchestra playing very well and providing passion.
The staging generally allowed all of this to happen. The enormous sandstone sets (or made to look like Egyptian sandstone, but still solid enough to make the motors which move the sets around the stage groan loudly) essentially provided a backdrop, in front of which the cast could act, and it indeed responded with dramatic acting (albeit the director did not think some items through – such as at the very beginning Radames and Aida are still supposed to be hiding their love and not meant – as here – to be openly holding hands in front of Amneris and everyone else). The costumes looked like Renaissance paintings of the way people in the Middle East were thought to have dressed in the time of Jesus; ancient Egyptians probably did not dress like that. But the odd costumes were not offensive. The stage direction could have used more people in the chorus (or at least extras – the chorus actually sounded large enough), since we were left to believe that the Egyptians defeated the Ethiopians with four battalions of six men each, plus a couple of dozen openly homosexual ballet dancers each carrying a phallus (I may not know my ballet very well, but the choreography throughout was so bizarre that the audience kept laughing, which cannot be an endorsement).
I explained last month how the theater itself actually has three stages – the main one in front of the audience, and then smaller ones to the left and right of the audience. This innovative opera house architecture has potential, and tonight’s stage director made the most of it. Oddly, he seems to have run out of ideas at the final scene – this last scene would be a perfect opportunity to use one of the side stages as the tomb – it is actually a difficult scene to stage in a normal theater (since not only is a dark tomb supposed to be visible, but Amneris is supposed to be in view outside the tomb). But the director put this scene entirely on the main stage. When the curtain opened, Amneris (who had thrown herself to the ground at the end of the previous scene) was in the same place but going up on a riser, while Radames walked down the steps into the tomb underneath. However, when he sang his lines that the tomb had closed over him, he was standing outside the tomb looking at Amneris. He then wandered out of the tomb part of the set to the front of the main stage, which itself was too large to be left dark, so the tomb was essentially the whole stage, with Amneris lying on an elevated slab in the back. When Radames lamented that his strong arms could not move the rock blocking the entrance of the tomb, there was no rock (just a big empty front of the stage). So I don’t really know what happened to the director’s brain in this scene.
Still, a very enjoyable evening.
Incidentally, regarding my complaints about the opera house building last month, it is still the same on a second look. However, the deafening heating units in the lobbies are no longer turned on. And I could also not feel the throbbing disco beat coming mysteriously out of the basement, so I assume I was right that that throbbing was caused by the motors powering the absurd industrial heaters.