Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tough show in Basel: Aida directed by Calixto Bieito

Aida, Theater Basel, September 26 2010

Michelle De Young, Sergey Khomov, and Angeles Blancas

Maurizio Barbacini Gabriel Feltz ..... conductor
Calixto Bieito ..... director

Angeles Blancas ..... Aida  
Michelle De Young ..... Amneris
Sergey Khomov ..... Radamès 
Alfred Walker ..... Amonasro  
Daniel Golossov ..... Ramfis
Andrew Murphy ..... Il re
Karl-Heinz Brandt ..... Un messagero
Rena Harms ..... Una sacerdotessa

Chorus of Theater Basel
Sinfonieorchester Basel

Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?
    J.K. Galbraith in The Nature of Mass Poverty, Harvard University Press, 1979.

To put into perspective my impressions about this production, I should first confess that I normally don't like this opera... for many different reasons... A few years back I even said to myself I wouldn't bother to see it again anymore unless someone decides to critically examine this libretto, applies it to our time, and stage it accordingly. No theater seemed to have courage to pull Aida from the swamps of old shabby productions with grotesque costumes and the "walk-like-an-Egyptian" kind of acting... and singers engaged in vulgar yelling qualified by some as "impressive singing".  When I saw the trailer for Bieito's new Aida in Basle, I felt a bright sunny day has come and I had to make a trip to Switzerland.

This is a very cutting edge kind of production and I can understand those who go to theater seeking entertainment instead of being profoundly disturbed: this Bieito's show is a theatrical fist "right in your face". Furthermore those who are more conservative or strongly right-wing politically oriented, are right to be pissed too.

Personally I am more than grateful to Calixto Bieito, to the entire production team, and obviously to Teater Basel [rightfully voted as the best theater in the German speaking world!] for making this show possible and to make me live one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences.

In this production Bieito goes one step beyond his favorite subject and exposes the rotten sides of our society that politicians either don't dare to talk about or use them for their populist/political purposes. When you see the show unfolding in front of you, it looks like a mirror of our society today -- a reflection of us that we do not want to see because it's easier to live even if we're all well aware of it.

I posted already a series of production pics here. If you know the story of Aida, good. If you don't please read the synopsis here.

Bieito's Aida is transferred to a present day Europe. With a little fine tuning on details you can also place it in the modern day Egypt. I'll stick to Italy as the place of action as a few references make you anchor it there, although --by association-- the story perfectly well applies to any Western country.

The action is set on the stadium, that Calixto called "the stadium of emotions" - c.f. trailer. Well, that's a very encrypted way of putting it as it completely avoids the overwhelming political statement he makes in this show [although he mentions the barbarian society].

Why stadium? It is his criticism of our era in which the world has become a big arena, where the wars, disasters, and even happier events are happening with us involved in them, but only as observers. By watching those events we're becoming increasingly used to them, and eventually unaffected, passive. In that process we turn a blind eye to the fact that main decisions --and the influence on those events!-- are made by a tiny class of obscenely rich people who capitalize and make big money out of them [wars, revolutions, disasters...]. 

The central issue is however immigration and everything it entails politically, socially and culturally in the modern Western world. European immigrants are mostly Muslim, and the cultural problems of their insertion to the Western society is a complex issue, both because of their heavy burden of tradition from their countries of origin, and because of the West not wanting to adapt to absorb them but instead push them to fully embrace the Western values. This is a major socio-political problem in any European country today that is extremely delicate to discuss about (that's what good theater should do!)

So you have a stadium of Europeans [middle class] who are passively observing what's happening in the arena, where you have immigrants performing (working for them, and entertaining them). In the boxes behind the public you can see almost naked people with their mouths duct-taped. Those are illegal immigrants. A catholic priest is sitting in the audience too. He sees everything but has no courage to take a stand on anything. He will only rise his hands when it's too late...

You can see the commercials on the walls [of the stadium] and even a drag-queen with pompous gestures selling the souvenirs and making "the show" ever more spectacular.

It becomes disturbing when Bieito starts pushing the buttons and shows the children laboring behind the sewing machines to make all sorts of European flags [the immigrants are de facto servants, working in horrible conditions for miserable wages to create the symbols of European nations, while Europeans sit passively, enjoy being served, and only wait to be entertained...]

At some point the illegals come into the arena and fight among themselves -- their world is gory and cruel. They are too weak to protest for their rights, but when Amonasro is brought imprisoned/caged into arena all the immigrants become upset and the situation starts to boil up. Until then passive the public starts polarizing between those who are pro-immigrants and those who are against them. As the fight in arena slips out of control, it spreads into the public and the whole stadium becomes inflamed. The posters and banners are torn, the seats are smashed and the stadium is vandalized... The rich guys in suits --who used to beat illegals only-- start beating everyone, including the public! When they realize that they'd lost control over the entire society, they rise a big metallic fence that you see in the trailer. Bieito is telling: We're in this together -- immigrants and no-immigrants. Those who're pulling strings (leaders of large corporations and their henchmen) use us and fabricate social dynamics to make money out of it.

You see, the show is very socio-political. The last part of Act-2 (pic below) grows and grows and makes you feel sick to your stomach... I really felt sick during intermission.

Now you may ask where the heck Verdi's Aida fits into all this hell! It does. The story of Aida is completely there... well, except that it is transposed to our times -- there are no pyramids, and we're not in ancient Egypt. Everything else is there!

Aida is a Muslim girl working as au pair in a wealthy family somewhere in Europe (Italy). Radames is in love with her. This love is doubly forbidden: from his side (you don't mix with them) and from her side too (you don't mix with them). Aida is torn between her traditional education/values and her desire to please Radames. In the above pic you see her in a red dress and with a white wig: that is a part of Amneris' revenge; Amneris knows that stripping Aida off the Muslim veil is a tough decision for her [Aida] to make, but she also believes Radames would lose interest in Aida if she was like any other Western girl.  Amneris uses it to humiliate Aida, and Aida does it hoping to please Radames.

At the level of social morality, Bieito makes a strong statement too. I mentioned the Catholic priest who observes everything, and who does nothing to preserve moral values his religion is supposed to defend. Once the war/riot/upheaval (call it what you want) is over and everything is stripped bare, the same priest staples a plastic cover on the wall with a huge "Durch meine Schuld" written on it.

Ramfis, at the beginning, looks like a soccer fan, colored in italian flag and having "Totti" written across his forehead ('19' on his chest, to make sure you understand it's a reference to Francesco Totti!): that much about where the moral values in our modern society are and whom the public listen to...

Daniel Golossov as Ramfis

Talking about immigrants, of course, brings racism up on the table. Amonasro is black and the moment he's brought to arena in the cage is the last drop that triggered the whole riot.

In Act-3 there is a beautiful scene between Amonasro and Aida! Bravo to Calixto and to the phenomenal performers!

Gabriel Feltz

This helluva show becomes extra-good because of its high musical quality. Angeles Blancas is a brilliant Aida. Her voice is big and she wouldn't have trouble filling vocally any larger opera house. Her acting is exemplary! It's passionate, she lives through this story and physically throws everything she's got.  Michelle De Young started a bit tentative but progressively grew and sang splendidly in the last part of the show.  Sergej Khomov is maybe not the best Radames in business but for this theater his voice was large enough. What is more remarkable is that his physique and his acting are a perfect fit to the romantic portrait of Radames that Bieito wanted to paint. Alfred Walker was my very pleasant discovery.  It's his role debut -- both vocally and scenically impressive.
I would be unfair finishing this short review without mentioning Daniel Golossov and his beautiful voice (even if the role of Ramfis is only episodic in this opera). Finally Maestro Gabriel Feltz did a very good job too. The pit at Theatre Basel is very deep giving a particularly pleasant balance between the orchestra and singers. In that delicate equilibrium Gabriel Feltz never covered the singers.

All in all, this was a very good show musically, very disturbing theatrically, exposing a broad social  hypocrisy and our individual part in it! In the end you necessarily ask yourself: What would be a good way to handle the issue of immigration before we head to far serious situations?!

Then, a few days ago, I stumbled over the quote by Prof. Galbraith (see above) and I believe the question he rises there is the same one pending behind this Bieito's creation.

Ed: Fellow blogger Likely Impossibilities saw the show yesterday and focus in her review on a more "Aida"-side of the story and so her review is complementary to what I've tried to discuss here. Please see her review on this link.

Excellent chorus of Theater Basel

After the last note, Aida and Radames are helped to climb out the hole by the same guys who buried them minutes before

Large tin curtain moves up before the crowd is called to come back to auditorium for Acts 3 and 4 

Society is polarized and the women wearing scarves are treated like illegal immigrants were treated before (from both sides!)

Curtain call: Drag queen, priest, dancers -- behind are the Muslim women

Amonasro talking to a fascist who killed him 30 mins ago

Superb trio: Michelle De Young, Sergey Khomov, and Angeles Blancas
Tip: Basle is expensive, but you should know that the local trains run until midnight and there are at least 2-3 trains per hour, so you may prefer looking for accommodation in Mulhouse, which is a city in France, only 20-25min from Basle (~10€ return ticket). Hotels and restaurants in Mulhouse are much cheaper (by about a factor of 2!)


  1. Great review... A powerful production with Bieito's seal...

    I'm wondering what he will do in Munich's Fidelio...

  2. Thanks a lot for this, great review. I think the veil action might have been muffed in the performance I saw, it sounds different (I saw a cover Aida, who was generally excellent). Also thanks for getting the soccer references, which are beyond me.

  3. I wish I could see this production instead of the boring crap we have here in San Francisco these past few seasons and to have the fantastic Michelle DeYoung as Amneris just makes me all the more envious.

  4. Basel is hardly on the opera map, so it is understandable that the Theater Basel managers would want to scream for attention by hiring a vulgar and clumsy deconstructionist to "direct" a production.

    Munich is another story. Here the hiring of Calixto Bieito to rethink Beethoven's beloved opera (due 21 Dec 2010) cannot boost the reputation of the house, cannot lift ticket sales (with Anja Kampe and Jonas Kaufmann slated), and cannot tell us anything we don't already know about "Fidelio," created as it was in far more turbulent times than those probed by this Spanish genius. So it appears irresponsible and a misuse of Bavarian funds.

  5. Interesting review of an intriguing production I won't see.
    But...Aida and Amonasro are slaves, right?
    Equating salvery with immigration (the latter implying at least somewhat of a choice) seems sloppy.

  6. John, if you get to see one of Bieito's shows LIVE do give it a try. It really is special. I believe this Aida wouldn't be nearly as good on DVD as it is live. So your next trip to Europe... ;)

    Anonymous, FYI Theater Basel is voted the best theater in the German speaking world for the second year in the row. BSO in Munich is far from where it used to be and the next two productions (Rusalka by Kusej and Fidelio by Bieito) could actually rescue its reputation at least to be close to the level of Frankfurt Opera.

    Anonimous2: Why sloppy? Children labor is not a form of slavery?!

  7. Thanks for the great review, its one of the best - if not the best - I've read about this Aida (and I've read a lot! :) ). Just a note about the conductor: The one you have on your picture isnt Maurizio Barbacini but Gabriel Feltz. Its 2 different conductors taking turns (actually its 3, but the 3rd one ist still to direct his first show). The two are like totally different. Barbacini is very sloppy imo, its always a big mess when he's conducting. He also conducts very solist-unfriendly, doesnt give them time to breathe etc. Feltz is extremely precise on the contrary and much more enjoyable for everyone. Looks like you picked a good performance to watch! :)

  8. Many thanks and esp for that info.

    When I saw a few photos of Maurizio Barbacini on the Web, an uncomfortable doubt has set in in my head. Gabriel Feltz it is! I'll correct that immediately. Cheers