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Ionarts at Large: Aida Americana in Munich

Why did the cheap seats boo Daniele Gatti? Surely his contribution could not to be blamed for the tame failure that was the new production of Aida at the Munich opera. Was he—for the first time conducting at the Bavarian State Opera—to fault for singers who refused to go along clearly indicated tempo changes? Or maybe for not playing the Triumphal March up to brass-blaring expectations? Actually, it was astonishing how much music Gatti got out of the score which, save for a handful absolutely delightful pieces, is a harsh throwback to the trivialities of Nabucco.

Nor were the singers too blame for a grim night at the opera. Sure, Salvatore Licitra (Radamès) can’t act his way out of a bag and looks and moves more like the Michelin Man than a warrior-hero, but his voice has gained a little more heft and his power, even if ever pushed with operatic gusto, nearly cach­­es the lack of ease and precision in the high notes. Kristin Lewis (Aida), who jumped in after Barbara Frittoli didn’t feel like performing the role after all, was visibly and audibly nervous on the big stage. That meant steadiness was lacking, but the ordinary beauty of her amber-hued voice came through and one wanted to like her. And, alone among the cast, at least she tried to act. Christian Van Horn’s King was unmusical in his haphazard approximation of low notes, but like Ekaterina Gubanova’s initially gray mezzo, he improved with time. Ramphis was sung well and routinely by the occasionally booming Giacomo Prestia; Marco Vratogna’s Amonasro was gruff but bearable. Angela Brower, substituting on short notice in the small role of the Priestess, stood out of the lot for her unmannered beauty. (Along with North Carolinian Kenneth Roberson's Messenger, Arizona State educated Brower was the fourth American in this production. Kristin Lewis was born in Little Rock, Van Horn on Long Island.)

If that wasn’t too exciting, Christof Nel managed to undermine what was left with a direction and staging that was mostly insipid for most of the time. Singers walked across Jens Kilian’s almost-minimal set (Bauhaus meets diving platform) in Ilse Welter-Fuchs’ bland-as-linen costumes (gold plateau shoes for the ‘Walk-Like-an-Egyptian’-Disco-Party-King). Monochromism played a dirty trick on the flags of war which were swung with fervor… but white. (That would have been funnier had the story taken place in France.) For three acts, the only really moving element was the continuously operating revolving stage. The ballets were an old fashioned embarrassment, the symbolic displays of violence heavy handed, and the evoked cult of death and human sacrifice culturally off by 8000 miles and 4000 years. The work of “Conceptual consultant” Martina Jochem? The final scene, at least, was touching in principle: Aida opens her veins as she goes into the netherworld with (an apparently absentminded) Radamès; leaving only her blood stains on the bare, finally still-standing, stage. Far too little, far too late for a production so nugatory, it didn’t even deserve the massive booing that ensued.

Further performances June 11th, 14th, 17th, 21st, and 30th.

All pictures © Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera

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