So, this is the story of my attendance at two opera performances, where one was in the theatre and one was the spectacular that is Opera On The Harbour. Both very different, both a bit flashy and glam, but one moved me, and one left me feeling WTAF?
First, to the special. Faust. With the David McVicar production from the Royal Opera, a much loved and praised production, that manages to include much of his usual visual language, while still remaining true to the story and libretto. Everything that is needed is there, with a few extras (I never worked out the point of the black evening gown for Mephistopheles, but it worked in context) and the story is told in a way that leaves this archetypal morality play still relevant for today. To be sure, we do not expect supernatural intervention in our lives, but this tale of innocence lost, and of "be careful what you ask for" still rang true, helped by superlative performances.
For this was truly international A-grade house casting. First of all, the young up coming tenor that is getting everyone excited, Michael Fabiano sang the title role. As a singer that did not automatically leap to mind in this role (I expect to hear him in Italian ones), I was impressed by his versatility. His musicianship was never in doubt, but French is a language that not every opera singer can sing successfully in. The fact that after Sydney he flew to Paris to perform the role at the Bastille Opera also probably says a lot. Needless to say, if you have the chance, I strongly recommend you go hear him, he is a very impressive singer, who is going to continue to improve.
As his love interest, we had the stunning Nicole Car, who once again showed why she is now going places. (currently singing in Berlin, then off to the Royal Opera as Tatyana) Last time I heard her, I loved her voice, but was a little underwhelmed by her acting in a role where she did not fit the production. This time, she was fine. She took the star role that Marguerite is and ran with it. If her French did not always sound French, that would be my biggest criticism, which in a young singer, is nothing that time and coaching will not fix.
And then we had Teddy Tahu Rhodes stepping into the big badboy role of Mephistopheles. And loving it. I have said before, that Teddy is such a great stage animal. Once again, he got a role to sink his teeth into and have fun with. And he did. I'm finding him sounding more basslike each time I hear him, less baritonal. And I like it. Especially in this role, where the usual performers are basses with secure top notes, not baritones who can go low. And of course, the best recorded performers of it are the Russian/eastern europe basses like Cristoff and Ghiaurov, so the darkening of Teddy's sound worked well here. Although, there is no real opportunity for him to show off his chest this time...
Then, we had the smaller parts filled out by Giorgio Caoduro as Valentine, Anna Dowsley as Siebel, Richard Anderson as Wagner and Domenica Matthews as Marthe. Each of them great singers and worthy of major roles, filling out smaller roles and making them vivid and real. And each of them well loved by Australian audiences.
The result of this? A performance of Faust that will live as the one to beat in my memories. Admittedly, only my second, and the first live, but it left me moved, and aware, that even if I will never be a Faust fan, it is certainly a much stronger work dramatically and musically than I had given it credit, in the correct hands.
Which leads me to Aida, which is a whole different kettle of fish.
First of all, Aida seems a natural fit to be mounted in stadium style productions, with big choruses and lots of put everything on you have on stage scenes. It's why it remains popular at The Met for example, who can fill their stage with hundreds of big voices raised in triumph or horror, as the mood dictates. The only problem with that idea, as everyone quickly discovers when performing Aida, is that it really is about the love triangle between the leads, stuck into the situation where they are all people of influence and importance, and love and the requirements of society do not match at all. Not to mention the requirements of religion. The big scenes are the setting of the scene for the important drama, what happens to the people at the centre of it
As a result, big flashy productions of Aida tend to fall flat on their faces if you do not have four performers giving performances that make you care about them. If you are more concerned about the spectacle than the story, then your Aida ultimately becomes the the souffle that fails to rise.
Now, to be sure, there was much to love about this production. All the voices (except one) were right for the parts. Visually, it looked amazing. It was just totally schizophrenic in its imagery. Amneris's costumes looked straight out of Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, yet Aida's looked like they belonged to the heroine of The Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I mean, I get that Aida is meant to look different to Amneris as one is Egyptian and one Ethiopian, but really??? And, that is before we start on the dancers and their outfits. Yes, let's not discuss the dancers at all, because what they had to do was mostly laughable and totally wrong in context (there was a context to them?)And their outfits belonged to the 1am show at RHI at the Sydney Mardi Gras Party.
So, yes, there was much that was quite frankly so grossly over the top, the production threatened to out camp a John Waters film. Think on that, and remember this is a serious drama about a love triangle caught up with societal pressures in a rigidly structured society. Or, it is written as such, at any rate.
Thankfully, the music making was mostly of a high standard. As Amneris, Jacqui Dark was pretty much the star of the show. Her character is traditionally the villain of this piece and she got to be that writ large. Always bringing a strong performance to her characters, here she revelled in playing the spoiler. Her voice is also well suited to the role, so she got to prowl the stage belting out her music with abandon, and generally acting the maneater, with her eye on someone else's man.
As the man in question, Arnold Rawls brought a remarkably fresh voiced tenor to the role, singing the opening aria which trips up many, with ease. To some, he me have failed to lack the daring do needed to be convincing as the man who risks throwing everything away for love, but to me, he was more the man paralysed by love's demands, than the do-er many assumed this role must be. He certainly sang the role comfortably, with more enthusiasm than many. His was a performance that left you thinking you would not mind hearing him again.
As the title role though, we had a singer who quite frankly did not cut it. Sure, she had all the notes, and she has a reputation as a spinto soprano, but that is where the good things ended. I couldn't help thinking at times, that her staging was very clearly designed around the other cast Aida (Latonia Moore) who has the voice to make you forget anything except what she is telling you. Daria Masiero does not. What Moore could convince with the power and beauty of her voice, Masiero would do and come across as looking stagy and tired, producing a "please like me" response, that REALLY grated on me. If your heroine who is going to die at the end, cannot make you want her to live, you have failed. And, that was the biggest problem for me in a problematic production. The Nile Scene where you see Aida being torn between her love for her man, and her desire to be back in her homeland, which can be a lesson in how to sing beautiful high notes softly, became an "oh my god just get over it" trial, as well. We felt nothing for her as a character, and the sounds she was producing, were frankly not that pretty either. Certainly the worst sound I have heard from an Aida (six staged performances, 2 of them video)
For the most part, the other performers were all quite acceptable, singing what really are roles that are cyphers, rather than flesh and blood characters, although the Ramfis of Conal Coad will remain with me, purely for the camp factor. Him walking up the stage with his cape could teach Joan Crawford how to go OTT for pure campery.
However, I have to admit, knowing Aida, I still have no idea what killed them in this production. There was no attempt to try to confine them, or to place them in some sort of lower location to suggest they were trapped. Rather they were stuck alone on the middle of that huge stage. Death by excess fresh air perhaps? Certainly not the suffocation they were singing about. It was also telling that I was eager for them to get it over and just die at the end. This was not a production to leave you sobbing at the end (which it should), rather, most of us left laughing. Which, considering this is a tragic love story, is probably all you really need to know.