Thursday, September 20, 2007

Aida, Kansas City Lyric Opera

Some things should just be left as they are. In the world of Opera, it is fashionable to take an opera and update it or change its locale and time. Often that works well. Bizet’s Carmen has been successfully done as an all black version, set in a dreary East European socialist factory and set in Mexico as well as Spain. Kansas City’s Lyric Opera set a "Die Fledermaus" in the 1920s and had period performers at Prince Orlofsky’s second act ball, it worked wonderfully.

But to me, Verdi’s Aida belongs to Ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs, of Memphis and Pyramids. The version being performed this month at Kansas City Lyric Opera floats in a space-time warp somewhere between Egypt, Turkey, Hollywood and Las Vegas and between 1500BC and 1871AD. It just doesn’t work.

For the Lyric’s 50th anniversary season, a highly anticipated production of the popular Aida was most welcome and opportune; a great way to kick off a celebratory season.

In an interview in the Kansas City Star, the producer Thaddeus Strassberger evoked such terms as “South Korean Olympics opening ceremony”, “Eyes Wide Shut” and “…very Mel Gibson ‘Apocalypto,’” to describe his production. Ok, fine… but the discrepancies and overall “look at me, I am making a statement here” mentality detracted from what was musically a stellar performance. Strassberger just can’t let the opera tell its own story; he has to interject twists (like the strange but more effective Hamlet by Thomas that he directed last season) and all the latest controversial clich├ęs to muddy the water.

The costumes looked more Turkish than Egyptian, burkas and hoods prevailed. Not a glitter of gold to be seen. Instead of amusing herself with the Moorish Slave Dance in Act II scene I, Amneris cavorted on a big bed with a couple of men in string bikinis, looking as if she had just picked them up from Craigslist. And WTF is with a virgin sacrifice, complete with a beating, bleeding heart displayed to all, doing in Aida? Especially one set in 1871?? Did the Egyptians still do that in 1871AD, did they still worship the ancient gods?? Done for shock purposes only, it made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Also contributing an absurd, sadistic atmosphere was the focus on the beating of the slaves during the triumphal March (!), complete with an Abu Garib-like pyramid of prisoners and a dog on a leash. We saw the seedy back side of the march; the soldiers (dressed in British Military uniforms and carrying rifles with bayonets) marched in back almost in shadow. A nice touch was the trumpets in the balcony providing a wonderful, yet sadly incongruous, celebratory tone to the music. Methinks producer Strassberger emulates his buddy Mel a bit too much. I hate Mel Gibson movies thus a Mel Gibson opera is just too much.

Fortunately, the singing was beyond reproach, some of the best I have yet heard at the Lyric and on par with many productions of larger companies. Jane Dutton as Amneris was wonderful, perfectly haughty and even a tad naughty like a spoiled daughter of a King. Luis Ledesma had a deep commanding voice and provided a sympathetic and ultimately tragic performance of Amonasro. Arnold Rawls as Radames was in fine voice but ultimately was undone by the bizarre staging, such as his almost limping, sullen march across the stage in the Triumphal March and his wandering across the stage and laying beside a huge rock in the opening scene. Karen Slack as Aida was not as strong a voice as was needed, but it fit well with an almost too quiet and subdued staging of her role.

The orchestra under Ward Holmquist was beyond reproach, continuing to show the growth of the orchestra that also doubles for the most part as the Kansas City Symphony.

I desperately wanted to like this adventurous production of Aida, but the incongruity, absurdity and dark, lifeless staging did it in. Go see it, but keep your eyes closed, that is the key.

No comments: