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.
The Seductions of Ancient Egypt
The end of the Peplum era?
The heart of the work
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.