Aida is one of Verdi’s greatest operas, a drama of love and honur and patriotism in the grandest 19th -century style. The setting is pharaonic Egypt, say about 1000 BCE. Verdi clearly believed in the universality of human nature from the earliest ages to his day. And on the day that I saw the new production in the Zurich opera house, the newspapers were reporting that the mummy of Queen Hatshepshut had just been identified in a Cairo museum. Time to glory in the spirit of ancient Egypt, then, the civilization that gave us that famous Queen, its hieroglyphics and pyramids and mysterious gods.
The singing was excellent, so was the dancing and the conductor’s tempo. But these welcome features had their limitations. The moment the curtain rose, it became obvious that the producer could not resist demeaning high art through political preaching. The scene consisted of an art nouveau hall with stained glass and pillars appropriate for a fancy hotel a hundred years ago. Instead of an Egyptian king, a high priest and acolytes in some approximation of what they would really have worn and in a setting suitable for them, the cast was dressed in uniforms styled on the British in Egypt. So the king in gold braided court dress and tarboosh was the image of Valentine Baker Pasha, the British officer who had once commanded the Khedive Ismail’s army. The chorus were either in similar Egypto-British uniforms, or in splendid costumes with silks and bustles, top hats and parasols – no expense spared for these idle rich wintering in Egypt. The producer at one point staged the women in an obvious quotation of J.F.Lewis’s famous Orientalist painting of a harem. (For this scene, I blame Edward Said directly). The captured Ethiopian slaves were delivered in a huge battleship complete with long-range naval guns. Whereupon the crowd of these spectacularly dressed ladies and gentlemen waved Union Jacks, although a few suddenly had French flags and half the chorus now appeared in uniforms such as the spahis wore for Beau Geste. These same soldiers and ornate ladies and gentlemen were very peculiar indeed when they had to sing in temples in worship of Isis and Phtha, as the libretto demands.
What was the producer thinking about ? The first performance of Aida was in 1871, to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, a boon to Egypt ever since. The British occupied Egypt only in 1882. Who cares about anachronisms when every detail is a loving travesty? Who cares about historical absurdities? The idea was to turn the drama of ancient Egyptians fighting Ethiopians into yet another onslaught against British and French imperialism. All those beautiful and thoughtless people celebrating the conquest of natives cannot possibly empathize with Aida’s love story that must have an unhappy ending. A stickler for proper staging of his work, Verdi would have fired the producer the moment he discovered his intentions, and never called on his services again.
Grand opera is fit to be compared to the tradition of Chinese or Indian musical dramas, while at the same time being a specifically Western contribution to civilization, a kind of cultural citadel. Everything else in our culture might be undermined, I used to think, but this citadel was impregnable. I underestimated contemporary opera producers. Exploiting the culture in the name of creativity while actually making sure to hollow it out from within, they reveal that they have no confidence in what they do, and no genuine imagination either. As Western cultural life goes down, it’s the same in all the arts, of course. Perhaps we have to be grateful that although producers can abuse Verdi’s grandeur, so far nobody has yet devised a way of spoiling his music.