Monday, March 30, 2015


Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of "Aida"
Photo: Hamilton Lund
Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion

Director: Gale Edwards

Set and Costume Designer: Mark Thompson

Choreographer: Lucas Jervies

Lighting Designer: Matt  Scott

Sound Designer: Tony David Cray

Media Preview reviewed by Bill Stephens

Gale Edwards certainly knows a thing or two about staging spectacle. Following her masterful staging of “Carmen” for a previous Handa Opera on the Harbour season, expectations were high for this production of the opera which is synonymous with spectacle, and this magnificent production of “Aida” she has exceeded even her previous personal best.

Arriving early at the site for the media preview, on a balmy Sydney autumn night, dancers were still rehearsing on the stage.  Latonia Moore (Aida) was busily engaged in perfecting a stage- fall on one side of the stage, while tenor, Walter Fraccaro (Radames) was being walked through some of the staging in the centre. Fraccaro, we learned, had flown in at short notice to play Radames, re-placing Roberto   Aronica, who had had to withdraw from the production due to the serious illness of his father.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of "Aida"
Photo: Hamilton Lund
Dominated by a huge, decaying statue of Nefertiti’s head, the stage itself gave little hint of the splendour which was to follow. Orange petrol drums were arranged around the back of the stage, and in various corners piles of broken gold stage props appeared to have been discarded.

Promptly at 7.30pm, Lyndon Terracini took to the stage, welcomed the preview audience, and reminded us that this was in reality the first dress rehearsal. Because rain had forced the curtailment of some of the earlier rehearsals, if necessary, this performance would be interrupted to sort out any problems. He also warned that some of the singers might choose to save their voices by ‘marking’ (singing below the octave).

As it turned out, there was not a hint of rain tonight. All the singers sang full voice all evening, no doubt taking full opportunity to explore Tony David Cray’s excellent sound design,   and there were no interruptions to the performance. 

Apart from a few dancers having difficulty in keeping up with Brian Castles-Onion’s brisk tempi for a couple of the routines, and a couple of the standard bearers becoming so engrossed in the spectacle unfolding around them that they forgot to collect their banners, the rehearsal appeared to go spectacularly well, and we were soon engrossed in the drama and spectacle of Verdi’s great masterpiece.

Milijana Nikolic (Amneris) - Latonia Moore (Aida)
Photo: Prudence Upton
Gale Edwards’ concept for “Aida” is big, bold and brilliant. Don’t expect historical accuracy from this production, as ambiguities and fantasy abound in Mark Thompson’s stunning set and brilliant costumes.  Aida, and the female chorus, wear huge crinolines, Amneris parades a series of extravagant fantasy gowns, some of the men wear smart business suits, others are dressed as contemporary army officers, and others wear lavish priests robes.  But under Edwards’ confident direction, all these disparate elements come together to create an extraordinary timeless world where the heightened operatic emotions of the inhabitants seem perfectly at home.

However, all of this spectacle would have counted for little, without a cast of exceptional singers who could involve the audience in the story, and this production is blessed with such a cast, who not only hold their own against the spectacle, but even manage to enhance it.

Walter Fraccaro (Radames) - David Parkin (Ramfis)
Photo: Prudence Upton
From the moment he takes the stage to sing his first solo, “Celeste Aida”, it is obvious that Walter Fraccaro was a fine Radames. His  commanding presence,  glorious tenor voice, and magnificent cloaks, make him to be totally convincing as the hero chosen by the High Priest to go to battle for Egypt.

Latonia Moore - Aida
Photo: Pat Stephens
Resplendent in a huge multi-coloured crinoline and tall headdress, there’s no mistaking Latonia Moore for anyone other than the Ethiopian princess, Aida, enslaved by the Egyptians, and not so secretly in love with Radames.  Moore sings magnificently throughout, and brings real passion and conviction to her scenes with the Egyptian princess, Amneris, and later, with Radames, as they choose to die together rather than be separated.

Milijana Nikolic - Amneris
Photo: Prudence Upton
Milijana Nikolic is also a stunning Amneris. Wearing her extravagant costumes with the flair of a super-model, and equally as glamorous, she uses her lustrous, warm contralto to great effect, even managing to elicit sympathy for her character in her final scene situated high above the audience.

David Parkin is imposing in both voice and appearance as the High Priest, Ramfis.  Gennadi Dubinsky is suitably regal as The King, and Michael Honeyman offers a fine characterisation as Amonasro, Aida’s father.

Working under difficult conditions, Brian Castles- Onion keeps tight control over the musical proceedings. His adroit conducting highlights the full drama of the score, while generously allowing the soloists the latitude to linger over notes when the drama requires it, without allowing the music to lose energy or flag.     
Latonia Moore (Aida) - Michael Honeyman (Amonasro)
Photo: Prudence Upton

Walter Faccaro - Radames
Photo: Prudence Upton

As expected, the Grand March, with its live animals, and wagonloads of plunder, is impressively staged, particularly the section in which dozens of shiny black coffins are laid out in the city square. Lucas Jervies has devised some eye-catching dance moves for this sequence which will no doubt be sharpened by opening night.

Latonia Moore (Aida) Walter Faccaro (Radames)
Photo: Pat Stephens
However it is in the second act, when most of the action centres on the three central characters that Edwards staging and direction really shines. With the aid of Matt Scott’s brilliant lighting design, and clever use of mist -shrouded processions to maintain the visual spectacle, Edwards keeps the attention firmly focussed on the protagonists, allowing the opera to sweep the audience along to its stunning conclusion.

Latonia Moore as Aida
Photo: Pat Stephens
This magnificent production of “Aida” can truly be described as unforgettable.  With the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and city skyline glittering in the background, it sits beautifully in its stunning setting on Sydney Harbour. It is hard to imagine anywhere else in the world that could match this opera experience. Definitely none  could offer the sight of the departing Queen Mary sailing by, as she did on this night, as a prelude.