It is the second premiere attempt for this “Aida” at the Salzburg Festival. You won’t be happy with Shirin Neshat’s revised direction either. There’s a great new Radamès for that.
At that time she was honored as the central star of the opera world, today she is a leper because of what is said to be an unclear attitude towards Russia. With strong bronze make-up she made her role debut as an Ethiopian princess, today blackfacing is over. And then the dress, embroidered with crystals from the festival sponsor Swarovski, as well as the costumes of the 24 slaves. In 2022 something simple in dark blue will do. There are five years between the first premiere of the Salzburg “Aida” and the new production this summer, they are worlds apart. For Anna Netrebko, the 2017 production was a diva vehicle. In the ditch, Riccardo Muti, who hates directing theater, probably also prevented more advanced ones. The result: The Verdi evening by Shirin Neshat, photographer, videographer, visual artist, failed to become a salt column arrangement. The most expensive semi-concert performance in the history of the festival.
Workshop Salzburg, that’s new under the Mönchsberg. Director Markus Hinterhäuser gave Lydia Steier’s “Magic Flute” a second chance this year. Shirin Neshat was granted the same clemency. Nobody expected a radical revision and it wasn’t opportune either. The Verdi cracker is used in Salzburg as a box-office bell to lure traditionalists. And yet there are a few sharpenings, cautious attempts at ambition. Videos by Shirin Neshat can now be seen on the monumental Ytong blocks by stage designer Christian Schmidt. Bedouin women in black looking accusingly at the camera, a comment on the ever-war-hungry hunks. Later you follow a procession with a corpse on a wave-swept coast.
Amonasro is stabbed to death
The stretcher, carried by mute men, is also performed live, with Amonasro on it, who was brutally stabbed to death at the end of the triumphal picture. Now he suddenly wakes up to speak as a phantom of the opera through the brain of daughter Aida. This is strange, but also necessary. He still has a duet to sing. During the changeover breaks, you see huge, black-and-white faces shaped by life and suffering, projected on the curtain, and whispers come from the loudspeakers – it usually takes too long.
Shirin Neshat also ventures a little out of cover. The constant killing, the simulated women, the torment of exile, all of that now shines through. The living pictures, a kind of Oberammergau with the flavor of the Foreign Legion, receive a cautious commentary. You like to look. And yet everything remains fatally clean, germ-free and infinitely harmless. As if war and oppression could be understood as an aesthetic phenomenon.
This year, the premiere is a Divo vehicle. Piotr Beczala risks the Radamès for the first time, he achieves great things. His lyrical past is heard in every bar, it’s the voice of a lithe stylist. A large portion of vocal ore has been added. Beczala has no trouble with dramatic moments like at the end of the fourth act, but always remains flexible. The high Bb at the end of the great aria, which hardly anyone succeeds like him, he can start in buttery, relaxed mezzavoce. And the fact that everything sounds as if Lehár left behind his best opera is only good for Verdi.
Elena Stikhina draws her Aida with finer hatching than the opulently moody Netrebko. The turmoil of the slave is now also noticeable, there is enough power for the big tones, later stiffening creeps in. Vocally speaking, Egypt’s princess would be a better match for Radamès. Ève-Maud Hubeaux, who recently joined the production for Anita Rachvelishvili, designs the Amneris with enormous tonal energy. A believable tragedy with exemplary vocal training. The Swiss has so much charisma that for a few minutes one forgets that she is not directing.
Boo storm for Shirin Neshat
Luca Salsi’s powerful Amonasro was there in 2017, as was Roberto Tagliavini. He has a beautiful voice, but remains neutral as king. Erwin Schrott (Ramfis) gets intoxicated again with his granular bass-baritone and has his own idea of tempo and sometimes also intonation. A veteran like Alain Altinoglu easily captures something like that again.
The chief conductor of the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels knows what Verdi, the singing staff and the audience need. In 2017, Riccardo Muti was still on the move with delicacy, as a careful balancing artist, so much now seems more direct, more earthly, also as if disenchanted – you can hear the introduction to the Nile scene: what was supposed to shimmer with Verdi is experienced as if under neon light. The Vienna Philharmonic delivers brilliance by the book, some things are too loud. The silky prelude, the fading of the final duet, on the other hand, can hardly be heard so delicately anywhere else. Shirin Neshat has to face a boo storm. One would not have expected this with such vehemence. But perhaps even this gala community has understood: a half-concert performance has become only a one-third concert.