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Friday, October 13, 2017, 11:22
Aida goes to the movies
By Peter Gordon
Friday, October 13, 2017, 11:22 By Peter Gordon

The grandeur of pharaoh’s courts in ancient Egypt gets transplanted in a modern-day film set in a new Opera Hong Kong production of Verdi’s Aida. Peter Gordon brings a ringside view.

The star-cast of Opera Hong Kong’s Aida features Violeta Urmana (Amneris), Riccardo Massi (Radamès), He Hui (Aida) and Reginald Smith Jr. (Amonasro). (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Aida, La Bohème and Carmen are the three most-performed operas — often referred to as the ABCs of opera by the cognoscenti. Among these, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida is particularly full of grandeur — featuring a famous triumphal march and often over-the-top pageantry. Live elephants are known to have appeared on stage, as many as 12 at the 1871 Cairo premiere. The audience turnout for Aida usually rivals that of Broadway blockbusters.

The story of the Ethiopian princess Aida, kept as a slave in the court of the pharaohs, is fairly straightforward. Aida is in love with Radamès, the commander of the Egyptian army, and he with her. This would have been an ill-fated love at the best of times, but there are two further complications: Radamès is set to go into battle with Aida’s father, the King Amonasro (the Egyptian court where Aida is held is unaware of the connection). Radamès has also caught the very jealous eye of the pharaoh’s daughter Amneris. When Radamès wins the battle and captures Amonasro, Aida finds herself caught between her heart and loyalty to her country.

Radamès receives the sacred sword in Act I. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Aida entered popular culture early on. Sophia Loren (lip-syncing the great soprano Renata Tebaldi) got her big break in a 1953 film adaptation of the opera. Jean-Louis Grinda, who has directed a new Opera Hong Kong production of Aida — playing in the city this week — seeks to create a cinematic feel. He has placed Verdi’s opera in a period film set, bringing the exotic into a more modern context as a reminder of its continuing relevance.

“This option of setting the opera as a film shoot allowed me to respect the libretto and the music of Aida,” says Grinda. “The audience will be the first spectators of this imaginary film, just as imaginary as is this love story set in the times of the pharaohs.”

Aida, of course, isn’t so much about Egypt as the conflict between duties to state, family and the heart. Although the opera was set in a place and time very far away from those in which it was composed, certain elements about the story are universal. Verdi included the elements of triumph, passion, pathos, anguish, ruthlessness, deception, bigotry and redemption in his composition. His protagonists were made to tackle difficult life choices.

The women come out of it better than the men. Radamès seems somewhat clueless about the way the world really works and the ruthless Amonasro is all too ready to manipulate those around him. Toward the end Amneris realizes her wickedness and repents, although the repentance comes a bit too late. Aida, who has struggled with the impossible position that fate had put her in, follows her heart to the tomb once freed from her duty. 

Amneris decrying the death sentence against Radamès in Act IV. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Opera Hong Kong has come up with an extraordinary cast of sopranos to sing the female lead. The acclaimed Chinese soprano He Hui sang Aida on the opening night, fresh off a run singing the same role at Verona’s famous Arena. He Hui now lives in Verona, Italy and has sung Aida more than 150 times. She sang in Hong Kong for only one performance, before flying off to perform her next act at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.  

However, those who missed listening to He Hui on the opening night should not despair, for American soprano Kristin Lewis, another of the world’s most renowned contemporary Aidas, is making her Chinese operatic debut with Opera Hong Kong over the weekend. Lewis returns to China in December to sing in Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder in Beijing. 

The part of Amneris is shared by two of opera’s reigning mezzo-sopranos, Violeta Urmana and Nina Surguladze. Urmana, who has sung both as a soprano and as a mezzo over a long career, is one of the very few singers ever to have sung both Aida and Amneris. Georgian mezzo Surguladze, who has been referred as the “Penélope Cruz of the opera”, also sings in leading houses worldwide, and will reprise Amneris in Bologna after her visit to Hong Kong.

Italian tenor Riccardo Massi will also be making his Hong Kong debut. “I don’t yet know the Hong Kong audience but colleagues who have sung there have spoken well of theater and the city so I can’t wait to start this new adventure!” said Massi, adding, “I’m going to give my Radamès everything I’ve got!” 

Chinese soprano He Hui’s (seen here with Riccardo Massi) robust singing made Aida completely relatable. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The stage is a set 

The opening night performance of Opera Hong Kong’s Aida on Tuesday lived up to expectations. A well-known classic film set in Ancient Egypt served as the backdrop, setting the tone for this cinema-inspired production of Aida. Cameras were wheeled in and out from time to time. The beginning of Act III created the feel of watching movie rushes. However, the homage to the movies came into its own with the ballet in Act II. The set being a throwback to Rome’s Cinecittà Studios in the 1950s, the costumes were, well, fetching. The ballet, choreographed and performed well, was cheekily integrated with the film-set concept.

The opening night cast featured the tenor Riccardo Massi as Radames and Violeta Urmana as Amneris. Reginald Smith Jr. was a deep-voiced resonant Amonasro. This relative newcomer has a commanding stage presence. Tian Haojiang’s deep, suave bass gave us a somewhat more empathetic-than-usual high priest.

But the night belonged to the soprano He Hui as Aida. Her voice was rich, lush, and as burnished as Egyptian copper. The director, Jean-Louis Grinda, wanted an Aida relevant for contemporary audiences, and He Hui gave him that. She created a believable character in whose thoughts and emotions the listener becomes inescapably entangled. When she sang, “O patria, quanto mi costi!” (My country, how much have you cost me!), the audience seemed to know exactly the extent of her suffering. The final applause seemed affectionate as well as enthusiastic.

If you go

Aida: an opera in four acts 

Composed by Giuseppe Verdi

Producer: Warren Mok

Conductor: Xu Zhong 

Lead singers: He Hui, Kristin Lewis and Marjorie Owens

Presented by Opera Hong Kong

Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

10, Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Through Oct 15

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