Jackal headed priests, their torsos bare, surrounded Radames (Leonardo Caimi) and began sniffing for blood the moment he assumed control of the Egyptian army in the new production of Verdi’s Aida currently being performed at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv.
This version of “Possente Ftha” (O Mighty Ptah) aria was a dark one.
Ptah might be the creator-god in the pantheon of ancient Egypt, yet he is just one more deity used to justify the call to arms. Radames is selected as general by Isis, the goddess of wisdom.
The masks the priest-dancers wear are a nod to Anubis, god of the underworld. When the King of Egypt (Vladimir Braun) appeared on stage, his head was covered by a gold mask of Horus, the avenging falcon-headed god. Yet, all the gods are but masks an empire wears to command men and women to die for it.
This finely detailed production goes much deeper than Egyptology. Egyptian ladies in white lorded over Ethiopian slave-girls in blue gowns and shoved their heads into the artificial island, where the entire cast stood and walked upon, as the defenseless women scrubbed.
The grand Triumphal March – often the scene audiences delight in, as it can employ skilled equestrians and on occasion, elephants – was used by director Stathis Livathinos to flip our heads.
Rather than the audience assuming the viewpoint of the Egyptians, gazing upon the spoils of war with coveting eyes, patrons were forced to watch the Egyptians.
The Egyptians, all wearing white, cheered and waved flags, oblivious to the blood stained coat Radames wore or the soldier-dancer who twitched on the floor like some broken puppet moments before the aria began.
The music slowly became ironic, its triumphant joy soiled. The discomfort turned to horror when captive women were led into slavery, faced us and beat their stomachs, hollering in silent agony.
Is it in protest of mass rape, which we now know is sometimes used in criminal wars? Or is it a cry against new laws which now restrict access to a safe and legal abortion in some US states?
Aida is a love story between a glory-focused general (Radames) and Aida (Monica Zanettin), an Ethiopian princess held captive in Egypt who hides her true identity. When her father Amonasro (Ionut Pascu) is also taken captive, he twists her arm to use her influence on Radames to share the route his soldiers will take against the Ethiopians.
AT KEY moments, the opera breaks, each character sings his or her own confusion and pain. Mere mortals are forced into impossible situations by politics and society. Gods far greater than those we can actually see.
Livathinos knows irony. When Radames boasts to Aida “per te ho pugnato, per to ho vinto!” (for you I fought, for you I conquered!) during the aria “Celeste Aida”, Zanettin lays beneath him as if attempting to sink into the surface of the island.
When Egyptian princess Amneris (Justina Gringyte) is about to marry Radames as a reward for his victories, the priest Ramfis (Insung Sim) places a protective hand above her head. This exact gesture is used by Amonasro to disown his daughter, unless she obeys him and betrays the man she loves.
“Si levano gli estinti” (the dead arise) “Amonasro chides Aida Ti additan essi e gridano: Per te la patria muor!” (They point at you and cry, “Because of you, our country dies!”).
Faced with such pressure, Aida lures the man she loves to tell her where his army is going to be: at the gorges of Napata, the capital of Egypt when black Pharaohs ruled it during the 25th dynasty and later, the capital of Kush. This is the same Kush mentioned in the book of Esther.
To the reader who wonders how the Ethiopian army is camped in a city located in modern Sudan, I can only point to the man who provided Verdi with the source material for this opera: French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette.
Gringyte shone as Amneris and her transformation from an unquestioning king’s daughter to a grieving, furious woman is awe inspiring.
“Sacerdoti: compiste un delitto!” She sings when Radames is branded as a traitor, “Tigri infami di sangue assetate.” (Priests, you have committed a crime! Infamous, bloodthirsty beasts).
Zanettin is no less impressive. During the premiere, she captured the heart of the audience as she sang “O patria mia” (Oh, my motherland) next to an immense screen created for this opera by sculptor, painter and set designer Alexander Polzin.
“O verdi colli, o profumate rive” (oh green hills, perfumed shores) she sang as the painted screen shone in lush hues of green, “mai più ti revedrò!” (I shall never see you again!).
The audience clapped, stood up in admiration and lavished bravos, and when Gringyte and Zanettin bowed, a brava or two. Livathinos and Polzin took to the stage and stood beaming alongside the entire cast, seeming to be delighted with the warmth with which the Israeli audience responded to this outstanding production.
Aida at the Israel Opera will run for nine more performances through Saturday, July 9 2022 at 9 p.m. This review is of the Sunday, June 26, show.
Please note: the performers of the roles interchange, so on alternating nights, other singers will perform the described roles. Sung in Italian with English and Hebrew subtitles. Tickets range from NIS 195 to NIS 445. 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.