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The opening of the Suez Canal in Cairo came  at a time when the West  felt  passionate about Egypt,  when  both  the pharaonic civilization and Modern Egypt  reformed by the Viceroy Mehemet Ali and his successors had been rediscovered by Champollion. In anticipation to the inauguration of a new Opera House in Cairo, composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote “Aïda” based on a story by the French egyptologist Auguste Mariette.  As  the sets kept being blocked in Paris because of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870,  the first performance  could only  take place on December 24, 1871 in the brand new Cairo Opera House.

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  It featured Ancient Egypt and people caught in the crossfire of international conflict. Verdi’s “Aïda”, the grandest of the grand operas is all about passionate love, jealousy, treason, revenge,  war and patriotism. Hatred versus pardon and submission to the gods’ tyranny for all. The core of the plot is a romantic triangle with a conflict that never tires the audience.

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Aïda, the Ethiopian slave was forced to choose between betraying her country and betraying her heart. And the same of course goes for her lover, the brilliant Greek captain Radames, appointed to lead the Egyptian army. In battle, he had captured Aïda’s father, Amonasro, the king of Ethiopia, and triumphantly returned to Egypt, where he was awarded the hand of Amneris, the pharaoh’s daughter, yearning for her dreams of a girl.  Somewhere in the thickest of a moonlit forest, Aïda ‘s father,  exhorts his daughter to press Radames to release military secrets. In this 2019 Liège performance, the role is held by resonant  Belgian baritone Lionel Lhote, who  performs with natural nobility  and no need to force the notes. He is the one to force admiration.   Aïda dreams of fleeing with her lover to her beloved Ethiopia

O fresche valli, o queto asil beato
Che un di promesso dall’amor mi fu
Or che d’amore il sogno è dileguato
O patria mia, non ti vedrò mai più.
Oh patria mia, mai più ti rivedrò!”

… and finally makes him betray his country by forcing him to disclose to her the secret route of his troops. Unfortunately, Amneris has overheard the exchange, and Radames is arrested. Amneris, who still loves him,   pleas to offer him freedom in exchange for his love, but Radames refuses, choosing a deadly fate. At the end of Act IV, Aïda, who has hidden in the tomb, shares her lover’s ill fate and prays for the culminating immortality of their love…  Aïda, dying in turn, implores the gods for Radames’s passage into heaven and Peace and Amneris, sobbing  up above  in her palace, reiterates Verdi’s last and most powerful word:  Peace! A political statement? A love outcry?

The famed opera staged in Liège for the first time, has fully gratified the audience. It was rapidly mesmerised as the show grew more spectacular and meaningful,  both musically and visually.

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The large Verdian chorus, smoothly prepared by Pierre Iodice was of course essential to the quality of the awaited grandiose performance. Its striking variety in registers, hieratic movements and ominous presence was enhanced by gorgeous costumes (Fernand Ruiz) and mobile sets (Jean-Guy Lecat), careful choreography (Michèle Anne de Mey) and lightings (Franco Marri). The dazzling dance of Ethiopian prisoners in front of Pharaoh’s daughter, by professional circus acrobat dancers evolving through a gigantic hoop, was one of the unforgettable visual  highlights made to support the action. In the phenomenal vocal ensembles, the chorus produced impressive harmonic lines, a frame through which the exceptional cast of the Tuesday night’s opening could happily display their rich expertise and intimate intensity.

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Ill-fated but alluring Greek commander Radames, sung by vibrant Marcello Giordani with his healthy tone ringing out vigorously,   displayed a thoroughly enthralling musicality. “Celeste Aida,” with its the score marked pianissimo and morendo (dying away) was simply breathtaking.  Reminding us of the terrible ordeal of Antigone, the Greek heroine, Radames suffered the same fate of being buried alive, forced to part with the beloved sacred light and step into the inferno’s eternal darkness.  The scene conveys a terrible sense of injustice, whatever the political issues might be. Nino Surguladze sang Amneris, the beautifully attired but cunning pharaoh’s daughter, with insuperable theatrical involvement, meticulously interpreting all pangs of love, jealousy, hatred, wrath, and distress. The audience could experience moments of sheer beauty and pleasure. The very demanding interpretation of Aïda’s soaring climaxes was starred by the fully committed Elaine Alvares, who embodied the theatrical complexities of lead character with stirring dramatic poise and acrobatic lyricism.  She came out as an  impassioned expert on duality,  light and shade,  caught in  the  sensitive contrasts of  the various kinds of love feelings she had to struggled with.

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Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera‘s both magnificent and interesting staging joined to Speranza Scappucci ‘s powerful direction made Verdi’s masterwork shine like no other.  She excelled in creating atmospheres, pacing the musicians, highlighting the interludes and ballets, prompting mysterious and exotic hues. She delivered the complexity of human soul, supporting the singers and giving Verdi’s timeless melodies their full range of emotions. Her knowledge of Verdi’s profound intentions and “theatrics” and her own sharp insight into the masterpiece extracted every drop of drama from the score and the libretto with an impeccable sense of dynamics and timing.

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 Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera managed to keep a perfect and imaginative balance between the monumental Egyptian pageantry and the tragedy, making the intimate soloists’ scenes all the more relevant. Avoiding any sign of pomposity, he generated a range of vivid pulsating tensions, while deliberately delving into the deepest layers of the human heart. Noteworthy as well, was the role of the Messenger sung with stamina by Maxime Melnik, a young Belgian tenor, and that of the icy and rigid  high priest Ramphis expertly sung by Luca Dall’Amico, bass. And last but not least, should we mention a double casting is a must for such a masterwork? Both as brilliant.

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Dominique-Hélène Lemaire


Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

February 26 >March 14 2019

Version française sur Arts et Lettres et commentaires: ici