Benedikt von Peter’s production of Aida imbeds the chorus, and most of the cast, in and around the massive auditorium of the Deutsche Oper, a bold and hugely successful inspiration. Unfortunately, the production concept standing behind this unconventional choice is underdeveloped.
Von Peter, a German director who is a regular at the Komische Oper Berlin juggles several themes at once. The first and most compelling of is a notion of Aida – and by extension the Egypt of Aida – as exoticized fantasy existing in the mind of either Radames or Verdi. The production’s second point of reference is the history of the opera’s composition: specifically the fraught ménage a trois between Verdi, his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, and Teresa Stolz, the soprano who sang the Nubian princess at the 1872 premiere at La Scala. The third and least compellingly developed theme of this production was the ongoing refugee crisis from wars in the Middle East.
Since Aida herself is an idealized projection or figment of Radames’ imagination, rather than a flesh and blood character, she never truly interacts with anyone else on stage. In the final scene, she joins the chorus in singing from the hall rather than the dying Radames on the small catwalk jutting out of the stage. Directorial decisions like these can be incoherent, yet this one worked: the improbability of Aida sneaking into the vault then dying in Radames’ arms (for reasons unspecified by the libretto) are elements von Peter cleverly plays with to suggest the hero’s mental delusion.
Radames’ desk is stacked high with books about Egypt and contemporary newspapers and surrounded by small TV monitors (which brought Nam June Paik to mind). The contents of his desk – including a postcard of the pyramids – are projected onto a small screen. The monitors proliferating onstage showed serious, sad faces of what may be refugees that Ramades hopes to liberate. The attempt to politicize this opera and connect it to contemporary events was intriguing yet far too sketchily developed to really make sense.