Given that, throughout the world, opera companies still depend on physical props, the use of an entirely digital set breaks tradition. "This is really changing the whole notion of what it means to build a show and also the impact you will have on the audience," Lyndon Terracini, Artistic Director, Opera Australia, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Riccardo Massi as Radamès. Credit: Prudence Upton
Behind the high-tech design is experimental Italian director Davide Livermore, who worked with Italians Gio Forma (set) and D-Wok (video). "We are creating a story," he said. "For me it is a way to tell that story. For example, to show the interior thought or a secondary level to the action."
In the First Act, the screens create a shadowy, imposing impression of the King of Egypt's Palace, as the story unfolds. Egypt is preparing for war against Ethiopia. The warrior who hopes to command the Egyptian army, Radames (Riccardo Massi), is madly in love with Aida (Amber Wagner), a slave to the Egyptian King (Jud Arthur). However, two problems stand in their way: firstly, the Egyptian King's daughter, Amneris (Elena Gabouri), is also in love with Radames. Secondly, Aida, unbeknownst to the Egyptians, is the daughter of the Ethiopian King, Amonasro (Warwick Fyfe), and, hence, Radames' logical enemy.
Warwick Fyfe as Amonasro and Amber Wagner as Aida. Credit: Prudence Upton
Wagner delivers Aida with staggering power, impressing particularly on the aria "O Patria Mia" (Oh, My Homeland), and is well met by Gabouri's incredible agility. Meanwhile, Massi delivers a lyrical, moving Radames; Fyfe captivates with his charismatic, volatile Amonasro; and Arthur commands as the Egyptian monarch.
The technology works best when supporting the cast with dramatic scenery. In Act Three, rippling, moon-drenched water transports Aida and Radames to the banks of the Nile, where they plan to elope. However, less successful is the depiction of painfully obvious symbols, which tend to distract and dilute. For example, the repeated appearance of a blinking panther – representative of the jealous Amneris – is inappropriately comical, even eliciting a few laughs.
Dancers. Credit: Prudence Upton
This tendency to resort to the obvious extends to the overall design, which risks exhausting us in its insistence on the spectacular. Meetings at the Egyptian King's Palace are such an excess of gold, glitter, fancy costumes, incessant movement and scantily-clad dancers, it's difficult to focus on the singers, despite their exceptional performances.
Livermore's Aida is a high-energy, resplendent production, which explores the potential of digital technology to connect the opera with modern audiences. However, as with any design tool – ancient or invented yesterday – it's most effective when complementing Verdi's transcendental compositions, rather than in the pursuit of sensationalism.