Staging Aida

A Contemporary Challenge

By Thierry Santurenne 16 June 2016

© Guergana Damianova / OnP

Staging Aida

Although open-air theatres still like to stage Aida with sets redolent of Ancient Egypt, numerous directors adopt dramaturgical standpoints aimed at bringing the work out of the land of Egypt and highlighting the universality of its themes and their strong resonance with our own times. The music history and opera specialist, Thierry Santurenne examines these endeavours for us.

Contemporary opera directors readily transpose the plots of operas to times and places other than those stipulated in the libretto, thus opening up new interpretational perspectives and amplifying a their modern-day resonances. Certain works long resisted this approach, either because the break with the literary content would have been too abrupt or because popular fascination for the cultural and historic context of the opera made directors reluctant to be too iconoclastic in their rereading of the work. The last mental barriers have fallen: Herbert Wernicke enticed Rosenkavelier out of its Roccoco chocolate box and projected it into a time and space defined solely by a multiplicity of allusions and references whilst in their recent productions of Dialogues des Carmelites, Christophe Honoré, Dmitri Tcherniakov and Olivier Py each avoided the evocation of the French Revolution in order to bring the drama up to date and Robert Carsen in Turandot resisted the seductions of legendary China, preferring to highlight Puccini’s universality (Flemish Opera 1992). Any work may thus be required to lose its initial anchorage in order to satisfy the expectations of a modernity leading it into new territory.    
Intolérance, film de D.  W. Griffith, 1916
Intolérance, film de D. W. Griffith, 1916 © akg-images / Album / WARK PRODUCING COMPANY

The Seductions of Ancient Egypt

On the other hand, the Egyptian imagery of Aida has been no slight obstacle to any revitalisation in the staging of the work. Indeed, how does one combat the magic and glamour of an already well-established “Egyptomania” with which Verdi and his collaborators themselves identified? Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign had encouraged the development of Egyptology and sparked off public interest in the vestiges of a prestigious past, to which diverse cultural productions testify: the “Retour d’Égypt” vogue of the Imperial style, for example, Théophile Gautier’s 1857 novel, Le Roman de la momie, and the watercolours of the British artist, David Roberts. The monumental aspect, the rituals and images of a civilisation long since disappeared provided grand opera, of which Aida is an example, with sufficiently spectacular material to heighten its depiction of human drama determined by History. There was certainly never any question of genuine historical reconstruction: the Egyptologist Auguste Mariette’s erudition only provided a basis for the theatrical, and therefore also imaginary, Egypt of Verdi’s opera. From the outset, this allowed Verdi to stand back from exotic historicism and, more importantly, to show in a new light the conflicts and archetypal situations of opera, - whether the tragic conflict between heart and duty or the oppression of church and state – in the finest tradition of European Orientalism: that of transplanting human passions to foreign soil so as to examine them with new eyes or to heighten their colour. On this point, the essential question for Verdi was passionate love, which he depicted in intimate scenes, thrown into relief by the large-scale ensembles like the Triumphant March or the religious ceremonies.

The end of the Peplum era?

The emergence of cinema was not without influence on 20th century stage productions of Aida, and had the effect of deflecting interest onto the work’s clichés with the inevitable result of a surfeit of grandiloquence. It is no coincidence that the first production at the Arena in Verona (1913) and D.W. Griffith’s film Intolerance (1916), which includes an unprecedentedly lavish passage evoking the splendours of Babylon, were more or less contemporary. The seventh art vied with grand opera in terms of visual splendour, and nowhere more eloquently than in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 film Cleopatra, in which the feast in honour of Marc Anthony provides a pretext for oriental dances and luxurious sets. Productions of Aida could not let themselves be outdone in terms of Pharaonic opulence and from then on palm trees and sphinxes were the order of the day. And they still are in open-air performances, designed to appeal to audiences whose Egyptology, more uninhibited than erudite, feeds equally happily on tourist reveries and the wholesome fantasy of Chuck Russell’s The Scorpion King, one of the most successful productions of this type being that of La Fura dels Baus in Verona in 2013.    
Aida, 2003, mise en scène de Robert Wilson, Royal Opera House, Londres
Aida, 2003, mise en scène de Robert Wilson, Royal Opera House, Londres © Laurie Lewis, Lebrecht/Rue des Archives
Among the last notable avatars of the peplum aesthetic in Italian opera houses, one must mention the productions of film directors William Friedkin (Turin, 2005) and Franco Zeffirelli (Milan, 2006). Their illustrative approach allows one to appreciate by contrast the full extent of the renewal in dramaturgical approaches to Aida, stripped by their contemporaries of the kitsch trappings of an erroneous tradition. At La Scala Milan, Peter Stein’s 2015 production offered a rereading, whose fidelity to the libretto went hand in hand with its renunciation of Egyptian kitsch, references to Egypt being limited to a few images like a throne and flabellum. As in Robert Wilson’s 2003 Covent Garden production, the decorative emphasis had given way to a stylised Orient, thus focussing attention on the essence of the drama.

The heart of the work

Wieland Wagner’s 1961 production for Berlin's Deutsche Oper constituted an essential step in the rediscovery of the expressive dimension of the opera. As the craftsman of the new Bayreuth confided to the critic Antoine Goléa in 1966, Aida was “pure symbol, through place, time and character” (Entretiens avec Wieland Wagner, 1926) with a dramatic architecture articulated around the timeless conflict between Eros and Thanatos. In his production, warlike violence and religious ceremony were tinged with archaic primitivism whilst Amneris’s chamber was adorned with a gigantic phallus representing the princess’s obsessions. Wieland Wagner deliberately flouted expectations by setting the triumphal procession at night in order to portray the obscurity invading the soul of a Radames oppressed by social pressure. Conversely, the vault beneath the temple was evoked by “the diffuse light of a supernatural day belonging to a better world”. Thanks to this inversion, the German director returned to the true spirit of the work. Peter Konwitschny’s radicality in Graz in 1994, followed on from the principles of Wieland Wagner. A grey cube, with the chorus relegated to its exterior, housed the action, the protagonists moving around a red sofa associated with the all-powerfulness of desire. Aida became once again a huis clos in which triumph was no more than a trivial festivity with streamers and cotillions. Here again, another world was suggested in the final scene in which the lovers receded towards a video showing the area around the theatre: on their way to the outside world, perhaps, and condemned to wander in the minds of spectators invited to contemplate, through the destinies of the heroes, the modernity of the work?    
Aida, 1994, mise en scène de Peter Konwitschny, Graz
Aida, 1994, mise en scène de Peter Konwitschny, Graz © Peter Manninger

A Contemporary Drama

In his essay L’Orientalisme (1978), Edward Saïd aimed to demonstrate that the West established its political and cultural domination of the Orient by creating its own imaginary vision of the latter. Later, in Culture et Imperialisme (1993), he designated Aida as an example of this ideological domination: a controversial affirmation that tramples on Verdi’s originality but explains why recent productions of this opera express a certain sense of guilt on the part of the West. Whether they set the action in a museum displaying Egyptian antiquities (Pet Halmen, Berlin Staatsper, 2007) or at the court of the Khedive Ismaïl Pacha, around the period of the opera’s first performance (Nicolas Joël, Zurich 2006), directors have been regarding the work with a certain distance signifying that a naïve view of Aida is no longer possible given the substance of the drama, which is now seen as a reflection of contemporary perversions, thus justifying the elimination of any direct reference to Ancient Egypt.

Now designated as representatives of the earth’s damned, the heroine and her compatriots become victims of war-mongering and of human violence in general: indeed, Olivier Py in his 2013 Paris production lined up tanks, soldiers in combat gear and piles of dead bodies; a warship cast its shadow over the scene of triumph in Nicolas Joël’s version; David McVicar (London 2011) had his prisoners disembowelled during the same scene and in Zurich in 2015 Tatjana Gürbaca used images of humiliation by soldiers reminding us of all too real past atrocities. Set in a stadium full of middle-class consumers, Calixto Bieito’s interpretation showed the humiliating spectacle of immigrants obliged to serve and entertain the crowd (Basle, 2010). The rebellion provoked by the exhibition of Amonasro in a cage is crushed by the plutocracy, seen as an additional agent of political power. In other productions, beggars pick up the alms thrown by the king (Luca Ronconi, Milan 1986) whose imperiousness, in Torsten Fisher’s 2014 Munich production, is underlined by his grotesquely tall crown and reinforced by his collusion with an omnipotent clergy. This is thrown into sharp relief in Olivier Py’s production when a priest confers his blessing on a tank at the end of the first act. Whilst Waldemar Kamer (Amsterdam, 1999) drew a parallel with the emergence of fascism, most directors tend nowadays to focus on the uncertainties of the contemporary world, as the presence of a dismembered Statue of Liberty suspended over the floating stage in Bregenz (Graham Vick, 2009) attests.     

Thierry Santurenne is a music historian and doctor of Philosophy in French and Comparative Literature, Thierry Santurenne specialises in musical dramaturgy. He has recently published Robert Carsen. L’opera charnel (Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 2016) on the aesthetics of this Canadian director.

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