Calixto Bieto’s new production of Aida at the Theater Basel poses a basic question: “is love possible in a society based on remorseless exploitation and extreme inequality?” (I quote his program note.) As you would expect from a warm and fuzzy guy like Bieito, the answer is, “nope.” But while we are treated to the usual collage of brutality--bloody naked prisoners being kicked, etc.--this production is both politically astute and, perhaps surprisingly, does a great job telling the story. It’s not easy to watch, but pure brilliance, if you ask me.
The setting is a stadium-like space in present-day Basel, as indicated by the locally relevant ads on the walls and a few moments of Swiss kitsch (I wonder how the music critic of the Basler Zeitung felt about writing about this one). But the stadium is purely metaphoric, a place for the chorus to wildly cheer and join in the spectacle of cruelty that unfolds in its center. They are incited by a fanatical cheerleader painted in the colors of the Egyptian flag, and follow a religion that involves reading the entrails of dead animals (this is realistic and kinda gross). They throw crumbs at the Ethiopian prisoners, and at one point all don Egyptian headdresses like crazed Cheeseheads. Society’s outcasts are represented by two solo figures of opposite extremes: a marauding (Catholic) priest and a frantically dancing drag queen. In the Triumphal March, Aida is forcibly and unhappily converted to Western dress. Aida’s grand opera trappings of choruses and ballets give Bieito plenty of space to work this stuff while still keeping a close eye on the unfolding plot. Radamès is an ordinary politician in a suit, Amneris a rich mean girl.Verdi-Ghislanzoni, Aida. Theater Basel, 9/10/10. New production directed by Calixto Bieito, sets by Rebecca Ringst, costumes Ingo Krügler, lights Hermann Münzer. Conducted by Maurizio Barbacini with Olga Romanko (Aida), Sergej Khomov (Radamès), Michelle DeYoung (Amneris), Alfred Walker (Amonasro).
|Aida, King, Messenger, Amonasro, Amneris, and a symbolic blind woman|
Verdi’s score is overflowing with the jingles and augmented seconds of exotic music, but as an Orientalist opera Aida is a puzzle, because it’s hard to decide what constitutes “us” and what “them.” Bieito tosses the exoticism-as-sexy-Other thing altogether. Exotic music usually represents something debased, less human, but it’s also undeniably exciting and enjoyable for us, the listeners. Here the music represents the degraded, primitive inhumanity of our own society, and the sadistic pleasure found in it. Like I said, Bieito’s no optimist. There is one (brilliant) exception to the no exoticism rule: in the Dance of the Priestesses, Amneris and her various European companions get into exotic drag and do a belly dance for the men, skewering all sorts of cultural appropriation in one short number.
|Michelle DeYoung as Amneris and Sergej Khomov as Radamès|
In the second half, the focus shifts from society to the inner world of the characters, the stadium emptying out. The Nile Scene has to be the most straightforwardly staged thing I’ve ever seen from Bieito--the moment when Radamès and Aida begin throwing around rolls of toilet paper in celebration aside--and it was also the most dramatically convincing Nile Scene I have ever seen, the staging hitting every emotional point right on cue. Amneris and Radamès’s subsequent scene, she wearing a wedding dress and severely overestimating her appeal to him, was similarly exciting in its rapidly shifting power dynamics. It’s all very violent and physical, but in a convincing way that seems totally apt for the music. Amneris even gets a bit of a heroic last stand, redeemed by love, even, only to be shot by a police officer near the end.
|Alfred Walker as Amonasro, Angeles Blancas as Aida,|
Khomov as Radamès (no pictures of Romanenko available)
Tenor Sergej Khomov sang a solid Radamès with a somewhat dry tone. He didn’t inherit the actor gene, but gave an impression of really trying his best, which worked for this well-intentioned, earnest interpretation. Major props to him and Romanko for singing the final scene while being in buried in actual dirt. Alfred Walker was a somewhat underpowered but emphatic and convincingly acted Amonasro. The orchestra sounded fine, but Maurizio Barbacini’s tempos could have used a little more give and take.
There was so much more in this production, but it is the kind of thing that doesn’t make much sense to describe. Bieito’s images work in a kind of brutal dream, or rather nightmare, logic. There are some things I can’t rationally explain--why did we open with a man wearing only Lederhosen slowly stroking the head of a life-sized plastic cow, in silence? and that toilet paper?--but it is all compelling. It is also a timely production. I missed the Viennese elections this weekend, I am told election day itself is not very interesting, but the extreme right FPÖ ended up making a terrifying amount of electoral hay with their Lueger-like fear-mongering and xenophobia, and I’m afraid that Bieito’s warning is all too needed.
Edited to add: Fellow blogger Opera Cake also saw this production, I recommend you read "big picture" take on this show here.
Local notes: The Theater Basel is a small theater, but the two balconies seem to be very far up and far away, so I recommend getting a seat on the lower level if you can. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but makes up for what it lacks in aesthetics with critical acclaim:
|(“Opera House of the Year,” which they were recently named by Opernwelt magazine.)|
Inside, it is a modern and pleasant multi-theater complex that is a smaller version of the Royal National Theatre in London. Judging by the many empty seats at this performance, tickets shouldn’t be hard to come by, I strongly recommend a visit if you’re in the area. They also offer a very generous 50% discount on tickets for students (but for the discount you must book over the phone or by email, not through the website).
I’ll be seeing Bieito’s Fidelio in Munich in early January. I’m not about to write a guide to working the Bayerische Staatsoper’s confusing “schriflicher Vorverkauf” (written advance sale, despite the name you can do it online), but apparently I filled out the form right because my ticket came in the mail last week.
Next: Harry Kupfer's new Ariadne at the Theater an der Wien on Thursday.
Production photos copyright Hans-Jörg Michel/Theater Basel. Theater photos by yours truly.
Edited for coherence because writing on four hours of night train sleep is unwise.