Calgary Opera’s Aida hits some sour notes

By Anne-Marie Bruzga

A friend once told me opera has four parts: a handsome tenor in love with a woman he can’t have, a beautiful soprano that spurs on said love story, an older mezzo-soprano in lust with said tenor, and pathos, the artistry that invokes an emotional response from the audience. Without the element of pathos, a classic opera degenerates into an unrealistic melodrama, as is the case with Calgary Opera’s production of Aida.

At the time, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida signaled a significant turn in Italian opera-writing in using the exotic location of Memphis, Egypt and its warring neighbour, Ethiopia. Against this backdrop, Verdi recounts the tragic love story between Aida (Marquita Lister), secretly an Ethiopian princess in Egyptian slave’s clothing, and Radamés (Craig Sirianni), her secret lover and captain of the guard of Memphis. Aida was captured during one of the wars, and, ironically, is slave to the Pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris (Sharon Graham).

Chosen to lead the Egyptian forces against an Ethiopian attack, Radamés, desires victory so he can ask for Aida’s hand from the king. Despite her heritage, he is almost giddy about killing off Aida’s countrymen.

Aida finds herself in the classic role of bewildered soprano, torn between Radamés and her love of Ethiopia. At this point, it is also clear Amneris wants Radamés for herself and, as a result, pushes the opera toward its tragic conclusion.

Much like literature, opera kind of works on the principle of suspended disbelief; as long as you can convince your audience it’s really happening, they’ll never question the finer details. Aida fails at doing this because of so many small faults.

The acoustics in the Jubilee Auditorium are not idyllic, but sound levels should have been fixed well before opening night. Yet, there were many times the talented Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra overpowered soloists–especially when Amneris dipped down into her lower register. As well, the chorus paid no attention to the orchestral direction of Mario Bernardi in the first two acts; they missed cut-offs, ignored clear dynamic direction and were more coordinated when singing offstage, than on.

The same could be said of the dancers, who frequently faultered. And on a general note, the choreography was used more as a space-filler between singing, than a true compliment to the opera. It only served purpose once, during a good fight scene between Ethiopian captives and Egyptian soldiers.

There were more general problems with the opera as well. Props were misused quite often; scarves became tangled, and prop lyres were played long after actual music stopped. A particularly bad blunder ruined the famous "Triumphal March," when an on-stage trumpet lost control.

Despite these errors, Aida can be appreciated on other levels. The lighting and set design, which was partially mobile, were used effectively to indicate scene transitions. The highlight, however, was the amazing vocal talent found within Lister and Sirianni. The two continually left the audience gasping in amazement, showing power and flexibility that bordered on perfection.

They were stunning, but simply not enough to surpass the flaws of the production.

Aida runs at the Jubilee Auditorium on Jan. 28 and 30 at 8 p.m.