The pomp of ancient Egypt places Verdi’s Aida in that small group of operas everyone is familiar with, regardless of whether they watched them or not. In New York City, the Metropolitan Opera production employed horses and delighted audiences during a 30-year run. The Connecticut Opera used elephants, belly dancers and boa snakes for the same purpose in the early 1980’s. In Masada, Kristin Lewis sang the title role in a grand 2011 production which employed a giant Pharaoh’s head and four sphinxes.
A new approach to a well-established story
This June, opera lovers will be able to enjoy a bold new re-telling of the clash between love and duty as Ethiopian princess Aida (Anna Nechaeva) and Egyptian general Radamès (Leonardo Caimi) face this horrible truth – when states make war, private lives are broken under the lathe of Heaven.
Sculptor, painter, and set designer Alexander Polzin took an entirely different path than the grandiose productions listed above. In his vision, Radamès, Aida and all of the other opera characters must walk, move and sing on the surface of a very uncomfortable man-made rock. “The King of Egypt, for example, does not have a chair he can use to sit,” Polzin explained, “so the performer has to find another solution to the problem of sitting down.”
When operas are produced, there is usually a very tight schedule. To speed things along, most opera houses use a make-believe set during rehearsals. Performers are given their costumes, and provided the actual set, mere weeks before opening. “The result is that the impact of the space is minimized to decoration,” Polzin noted, “if you do not have this island at the beginning, performers cannot discover their movement solutions to the opera.”
“Artistically,” he argued, “it is a loss.”
A contrast between opaqueness and transparency
COSTUME DESIGNER Andrea Schmidt-Futterer noted La Monnaie gave performers, from the early days of the rehearsals, their exact rehearsal costumes. Egyptian priest Ramfis, for example, was given the skeleton of wings and hair which covers his eyes. “This informs us that this is a priest in a more shamanistic tradition,” she noted. “We tried to avoid the blue and gold pomp and kitsch that is often used for Aida.”
Above the island, an open circle stands for the Eye of Ra, the solar disc, or the pitiless eye of heaven. As Ramfis informs Radamès that the gods chose him to defeat the invading Ethiopians, Aida asks: ‘Per chi piango? Per chi prego?’ – For whom to weep? For whom to pray? She is a princess treated as a slave. Should she pray to the gods that the man she loves, Radamès, would murder Amonsaro, her own father, as the latter leads the invasion meant to rescue her.
The construction of the island had been a formidable challenge as it needs to carry the weight of 90 people and offer the illusion that it is made from stone when, in fact, it is not. This production employs the contrast between opaqueness – how humans fail to see – and transparency, how we often only see things once it is too late to change them.
Those with an eye for the arts might recognize Polzin from two of his works that stand in Tel Aviv and Haifa. His Socrates can be found at the Cohn Institute at Tel Aviv University and his Fallen Angel at Paris Square.
He struck a friendship with the late philosopher of science Yehuda Elkana, who founded the institute, and refers to the 1920 painting Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, now at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, while discussing his point of departure for his angels. A monument he designed to honor the poet Paul Celan now stands at the Anne Frank garden in Paris, France. The arrival of Polzin’s set to the Israeli opera is, in that sense, a welcomed addition to his life-long relationship with Israel and its people.
A surprising relationship with Israel
DIRECTOR Stathis Livathinos also shared a surprising relationship with Israel. He was a student of the late Yevgeny Aryeh, co-founder of the Gesher Theater, when the latter taught at the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS). After Aryeh moved to Israel, Livathinos visited him twice.
“We had a great connection,” he offered. “In my heart, this production will be devoted to his memory.”
Livathinos comes from a family of noted actors. His uncle was Manos Katrakis, a great Greek actor who worked in the years when “everything was flesh and blood,” he said.
Katrakis was also “a person of Left ideology at a time when this was a sure way to end up in prison,” the director said – “which he did.” During his time in military prison on the island of Makronisos, Katrakis had company: The late composer Mikis Theodorakis also served time there.
For Livathinos, Verdi has depth equal to Shakespeare. “The composed music for this opera is pure genius,” he said “It is one of the best written operas, and it offers a deep psychological insight.”
What is the opera based on?
VERDI BASED Aida on a work penned by the great French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. However, when we watch Pavarotti (Radamès) grabbing a large uraeus, the gold cobra which once adorned the crown of Egyptian rulers, before he marches to war – we are not learning how things were done in ancient Egypt. The horses and elephants in the triumphant scenes of the Egyptian army leading Ethiopian war captives are used under poetic license.
Real Egyptian generals would bring home piles of severed enemy hands, and get promoted. It is also worthwhile to note the Egyptians had a much closer love-hate relationship with the Nubians, the Sudanese of today, than they did with Ethiopia, which is a little farther off. There were even black Egyptian rulers, such as Shabaka, who ruled during the 25th Dynasty.
While historically Black Pharaohs existed, this does not mean Cleopatra, for example, or Tutankhamun were also black. Ethnically speaking, Cleopatra was Greek and Tutankhamun had red hair. Cleopatra was also the last ruler of Egypt able to read hieroglyphs.
In the US, Leontyne Price became associated with Aida after she shone in that role for decades. Naturally, one does not need to be black to play the role of an Ethiopian princess. Ghena Dimitrova, who performed in that role alongside Pavarotti, was Bulgarian. In 2013, Chinese singer He Hui sung the role at the Arena di Verona under Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber.
Yet it is true that casting a black singer at the Met’s at the height of the civil rights movement struggle for equality was electrifying at the time. Likewise, to cast a singer born in Ukraine, or Gaza, would land a similar punch as today’s audience watch the stage fill with cries of Guerra! Guerra! Tremenda, Insesorata! – War! War! Tremendous, Pitiless!
Aida at the Israeli Opera will premiere on Sunday, June 26, at 7:30 p.m. with the final performance to be given on Saturday, July 9, at 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.israel-opera.co.il/eng/ or call 03-692-7777. The Israeli Opera is at 19 King Saul Boulevard, Tel Aviv.