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S & H International Opera Review

Mukeria triumphant in the Valley of the Kings

Verdi, Aida: The Helikon Opera, Moscow, 17th March 2002 (NM)


In the world of Grand Opera, it’s axiomatic that they come no grander than Aida – a work specially commissioned and conceived from the outset to be enacted on a monumental scale. In the pint-size setting of the Helikon Opera, the lucky holders of the 200-odd tickets this venue can seat heard a musical reading that delivered the monumental in spades, with an appearance of guest conductor David Mukeria. Mukeria is currently to be found as Music Director at the Georgian National Opera in Tblisi, but he shares an ethnic background with countryman Valery Gergiev, in Russia’s North Caucasus. Like Gergiev, he can take a masterly overview of the sweep and scale of a work and pace it like a hunter – yet moment-by-moment there is a sense of inspired emotion. Even in the first bars of the prelude, Mukeria knows how he will be pacing the closing scenes, reserving colours from his sound-palette for later. A joyful Helikon orchestra responded in kind, with warm tuttis and sparky sforzandos that belied careful and detailed musical preparation. If Monteverdi’s maxim "first the music, then the drama" has been a little mothballed of late on Bolshaya Nikitskaya St, this production fused a superlative musical performance with a riveting dramatic production – neither one having primacy, but the sum of its equal parts being greater than the whole.

Company founder Dmitry Bertman’s production, like some others, moves the centre of dramatic interest from Aida herself to her rival Amneris. This is, perhaps, a C20th neurosis – purer-than-driven-snow C19th downtrodden heroines like Aida or Desdemona are not nearly so appealing for jaded modern palettes as an unreconstructed vicious super-bitch - the triumph of Jackie Collins over Cinderella. The in-house design team of Igor Nezhny and Tatiana Tulubyova take an interesting route through the seemingly-impossible task of trying to get the Valley Of The Kings onto a stage smaller than the Balcony Bar at English National Opera. The imagery siezes upon the crossover area between the cult of Isis and the reuse of that imagery by Freemasonry… and on into fascist iconography. The result is amazingly successful, simultaneously suggesting Ancient Egypt on a first glance, but with strong overtones of some South American banana-autocracy. The "monumental" in Bertman’s production is not on an immediately physical level of space, but in the form of the crushing emotional sledgehammer of a non-specific police state. The male chorus appear in ceremonial Anubis headdresses which seem halfway between Cheops and the Blackshirts, whilst the female chorus appear in camouflage dungarees, and black Guevara-style berets. Parallels with inter-African struggles like Rwanda or Angola are not far away. "Su del Nilo" was an all-too-realistic war-mongering rally, with the normally cute-looking female chorus as burning-eyed zealots giving ritual black-gloved Mussolini-type salutes to Nikolai Galin’s magnificently sung martinette of a Pharoah. With his renowned ability to dazzle with the unexpected, Bertman keeps these harridans mouthing "Su del Ni-lo…" during the trio section, brilliantly illustrating the background thoughts and emotions of the wretched protagonists propelled by events into their worst nightmare.

Nikolai Dorozhkin returns home to the Helikon as Radames, and if international opera companies have ransacked Russian houses more ruthlessly than Egyptian tomb-robbers, let’s be grateful that this glorious treasure is still on display – a dramatic tenor who can act convincingly whilst delivering lyrical lines of spun gold in even the extremes of the register. If there’d been a power outage after "Celeste Aida", no one could have said they’d not already had their money’s-worth that evening. Partnering him was Alisa Gibtsa in the title role, who perfectly portrayed the delicacy and finer feelings of her character in bel-canto singing to die-for – "Numi Pieta" had the audience on the edge of their seats. However, Ms Gibtsa also has the big guns in reserve when she needs them, and has a punchy lirico-spinto top that steamrollered through the juiciest textures Merkuria conjured out of the pit – luxury casting indeed. Completing the love triangle was Svetlana Rossiyskaya, a last-minute replacement for an ailing Elena Ionova as Amneris – but there was nothing last minute about this phenomenal portrayal. As a woman scorned, hell hath no fury greater than Svetlana Rossiyskaya in high-heeled leather boots, jerking the hapless Aida around the stage on the end of a collar and leash – which Aida wears throughout this production. The intensity of this performance was almost frightening to behold, one almost wanted someone to intervene to prevent the wanton, callous cruelty. Vocally Rossiyskaya is more than on top of things, socking it out when needed, but with intimate delicacy available for the quieter self-doubts of a manic control-freak.

The production pits the hopeless fate of individuals against a pitiless militaristic State – the separate fates of Ethiopia and Egypt are almost an irrelevance, for in this war, there are only individual losers. Dorozhkin’s carefully played Radames betrays the human frailties and concerns that are accounted fatal weaknesses in leaders. Amonasro, played by an Andrei Baturkin fresh from his success as Onegin, was appropriately slimy and dissembling, and Pavel Kudinov sang a decent Ramfis entirely from the confines of an upright sarcophagus. Mukeria controlled the big chorus numbers perfectly, and careful use of every available location (including having the offstage handmaidens of Isis singing in the foyer) maintained the grand scale of the music in even the confined spaces available. Downplayed famous moments are almost a production cliché these days, but having a chorus of tiny children (with eerie black-gloved salutes) as the centerpiece of the Grand March was an effective device, deepened by having hazy back-projection of black-and-white films of epic battle scenes fluttering across the victory pennants of the crowd. A special mention ought to be made for Marina Kalinina’s terrifying Priestess of Isis – a sword-wielding Angel of Vengeance that made a much more credible portrayal than the usual vestal virgin we see elsewhere, and equipped with a military-issue soprano with a devastating edge to it too.

Natalya Palagina danced the Figure of Death, and appeared once again in Act II as a female army-recruit specially pulled-out of the ranks by the sadistic Amneris for ritual bullying for her vicious amusement – connected-up to bungee-cords and thrown-around the room by enthusiastic female cohorts. She metes-out the same punishment to the captured Radames, flogging him viciously with a bullwhip. This interrogation scene is both a musical and dramatic highpoint, with Rossiyskaya hysterically flailing at the walls and the floor with her bullwhip whilst Radames is taken out by the guards – her chilling "moriro!" carrying an even greater punch than the whip itself. Some creaky scenery got the final scene in the sealed tomb off to a shaky start, but Gibtsa’s delicious pianissimos and carefully-judged acting quickly restored the overall excellence of the evening, with Dorozhkin nobly eschewing grimaces and other histrionics to expire nobly and peacefully – and magnificently. Rossiyskaya symbolically comes between the lovers whose lives she has wrecked to deliver her blessing – even when trying to forgive them, this tactless Amneris succeeds in destroying the everlasting peace that they might have at least had in death. This Aida has become a top-rate production in which one has to make none of the musical allowances that it required when seen last year, and the welter of talent seen in it proved that an ensemble-opera, credibly-dramatic production of Aida can work just as well as a sports-stadium-sized version. The audience made no secret of their total approval for it.

Neil McGowan


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