Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida on Sydney Harbour Photo Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida on Sydney Harbour
Photo Prudence Upton

Charlotte Kasner on an opera spectacular coming to cinemas later this month.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour has become part of the city’s cultural landscape but there is something slightly odd about watching a production opposite one of the greatest opera houses in the world and something equally odd about a backdrop of Sydney harbour bridge, tower blocks, a winking red beacon and passing tourist boats mixing with the usual panoply of Egyptiana.

Odd but engaging.

Verdi was not specific in setting Aida in any particular period and designer Mark Thompson makes no effort to either with a mish-mash of styles and periods. The dancers and Aida herself sport crinolines for no apparent reason, not least given that they had gone out of fashion nearly a decade before the opera’s first performance.

The production has its tacky moments, but Lationia Moore as Aida and Milijana Nikolic as Amneris both have glorious voices that rise above the tackiness of elements of the production. Both also provide plenty of dramatic tension, Nikolic in particular having a very expressive face.

Walter Fraccaro is a convincing Radames, albeit as a rather old-fashioned tenor with rather too much vibrato for modern tastes. He leads the way at the opening where the generals provide more than a whiff of Gadaffi’s Libya as they pour over the map on the centre of the stage floor and debate the fortunes of their war with Ethiopia. Politically of course, Egypt and Ethiopia must have seemed distantly exotic to the original audiences but there is a poignancy in the contemporary war-torn references.

Sensibly, the staging is fairly basic with three levels all presided over by a giant head that looks like a cross between the Sphinx and Nefertiti. Like the Sphinx, this head is pock-marked by holes, one huge eye rent asunder providing the opportunity for Amneris to sing her final moments looking out across the audience from high above as Aida and Radomes perish below.

Set and fireworks Photo Prudence Upton

Set and fireworks
Photo Prudence Upton

Amneris (Milijana Nikolic) and Aida Latonia Moore Photo Prudence Upton

Amneris (Milijana Nikolic) and Aida Latonia Moore
Photo Prudence Upton

As with most 19th-century opera, dance is integral to the whole. The chorus largely get wheeled on an off, but there is an odd cabaret-style cancan at the beginning with dancers clad in considerably less than their French counterparts would have been, and a writhing set of dances for the acolytes of the priests, all shiny black, tight fitting bodices and spiky red heels. The dances sit a little oddly with the rest of the action but do make for are pleasant diversions.

Some of Thompson’s costume choices are seriously odd though. He does poor Moore no favours either by dressing her for the first two acts in a vast crinoline and bizarre headwear that makes her look as if Amneris made her dig around in a pantomime dame’s laundry basket for her clothes. Nikolic fares little better dressed in a thin shifts that look much poorer than her slave’s garb. Neither women are flattered by the look.

Mention must be made of the three obligatory camels who dutifully trooped past in the victory parade and provided Radames with a brief ride (amusingly with stirrups!) One even managed to get a cud-chewing cameo (camelo?) in the opening shots.

At two and a quarter hours, this Aida is a cut down version in three rather than the original four acts and is thus just right for a jolly evening out; it’s highly entertaining, and for far less than a flight to Sydney.

Aida on Sydney Harbour will be screened in cinemas across the UK and Europe on September 15. To find a cinema near you, click here.
Details of screenings in the rest of the world will also be shown here when available.