His recent staging of Alceste was poor; his new Aida is even worse. Almost 50 years after its last performance at the Paris Opera, Verdi’s foray into Egyptian colour has been disinterred by Olivier Py only to be reburied in a vulgar ceremony of unsubtle, recycled stagecraft and semaphored gesture.
Aida is a stylistic hiccough in Verdi’s triumphant march towards the late masterpieces of Otello and Falstaff, an apparent reversal into French grand opera with too much emphasis on pomp. Its real heart is a quartet of characters wrestling with inner conflicts. Py largely sidelines this and turns the opera into a denunciation of war, nationalism and clerical interference. The chronology is intentionally muddled – we start pre-1870 with Austrian soldiers clobbering a youth carrying the Italian flag but the subsequent prominence of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument and a tank widens Py’s critical net to Italy’s colonial sally into Ethiopia in the 1930s.
This has a certain appeal on paper but, apart from his striking split-level treatment of the triumphal march – a ballerina dancing above and militia piling up corpses below – its execution is woeful and cliché-ridden. Py’s manual of production angles and wheezes is dog-eared and yellowing – the topless youths, the Kalashnikovs and the crepuscular lighting are all ripe for the bin. The ghetto refugees bearing suitcases, here representing the Ethiopian prisoners, were also an unwelcome chestnut in his Les Huguenots for La Monnaie. Even more disconcerting is his amateurish handling of cast and chorus. A rookie producer might be forgiven for this but not the current director of the Avignon Festival.
No theme is too hackneyed for Py’s imagination. Audience fury finally erupts when Radames’ trial turns into a Ku Klux Klan rally complete with burning cross. But some of the thunderous booing for him at curtain call might justifiably have been shared with Oksana Dyka’s can belto Aida, which modulates from steely loud to triple forte, Sergei Murzaev’s lumpy Amonasro and Roberto Scandiuzzi’s pitch-challenged Ramfis. Luciana d’Intino’s Amneris struggles with a gaping register break but, happily, Marcelo Álvarez (Radames) – even on one of his off-nights – can teach the others a thing or two about Verdian line.
The orchestra pull out the stops for Philippe Jordan but his carefully engineered reading is too calculating and short on genuine Italian sentiment.