Arts Listings

Berkeley Opera Presents Unconventional Version of ‘Aida’

By Jaime Robles
Friday July 27, 2007

Out of the hundred or so operas that are produced in major houses annually, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda ranks among the top 20 and has done so for decades. This brings up a pressing question for opera companies: Is it possible to show the same opera over and over with little change in the production, or are companies obliged to rework expensive operas so that they seem continually new? Last Saturday, the Berkeley Opera opened its own version of Aïda, one that strove to be unconventional—fresher and more relevant. 

Smaller companies seldom stage Verdi’s Egyptian opera because of the financial demands of the opera’s conventions—notably a cast of supernumeraries formed into a victory procession that traditionally includes elephants, horses or some other fauna, as well as a last act that necessitates a double stage, with temple above and tomb below.  

One of Berkeley Opera’s solutions to the burden of the production was to limit casting, costuming and rehearsal time to the opera’s few soloists, and to place the chorus off stage. The ingenious transformation of the Egyptian victory processional into a television broadcast allowed not only for video projections of crowd scenes but also created an ironic portrayal of the opera’s royal family as a kind of media event.  

Which leads us to a more crucial decision by Berkeley Opera’s creative team: the updating of Aïda’s setting to a contemporary milieu. It’s to the company’s credit that it continually tries to address current issues. For the other pressing question in opera today is about social significance: Are traditional operas that showcase long abandoned mores and values meaningful to the culture at large?  

Since the 1980s Peter Sellars has been a force in the direction of opera. His work with composer John Adams has pushed the themes and ideas of opera well into the present century. But his interpretations of Mozart have had even greater effect. For what Sellars brought to opera is directorial license to modernize conventional opera in edgy productions pertinent to today’s politics and sexuality. This is what director Yuval Sharon attempts with Berkeley Opera’s Aïda.  

Sharon’s production opens with a line of uniformed maids cleaning the floor of a white-walled office reminiscent of a room in the White House. The upstage hallway is painted red, the stage-left hallway, ultramarine blue. Men in suits pass through. Above the set is a second stage: a dark attic like room into which a man is thrown on a bed and beaten. During the opera’s course this room serves as torture chamber, killing room and finally the tomb in which Radamés and Aïda die.  

Even though the supertitles don’t refer to any country by name, the parallels with contemporary American political power are obvious. And they can be chilling: for example, when the priest Ramfis sings about “the Deity.” 

Overall, however, the production falls prey to the logical inconsistencies that occur when 130-year-old operas are squeezed into a modern concept; it’s further beset by difficult directorial choices badly made. 

Enacting torture is always questionable. It’s one of those extremes of reality that when set in an essentially imaginary or fantastic medium like theater takes on an artificial and self-conscious quality. It becomes a parody of itself, thereby losing its power and diverting the intent behind portraying it. It seems gratuitous. 

Other attempts to show the horrors and corruption of power—the high priest’s sexual mauling of the Patriotic Girl, the beating of the messenger, the ending throat-slitting by the opposing guerrilla forces—also seemed gratuitous. Set in contrast to the opera’s splendid choruses, which were ably sung by the UC Alumni Chorus, these scenes were awkward at best.  

Aïda is one of Verdi’s more psychologically complex operas: built around the triangle of Aïda, Radamés and Amneris, it brings up questions of personal versus social loyalty and the force of passions to betray. Its ethics of emotions have political implications in and of themselves that are accessible to the audience even in the most conservative productions. Berkeley Opera’s violence-laced interpretation flattened out the characters’ complexity so that they, and consequently the entire production, seemed cartoonish. Which was an injustice to the singers and musicians. 

Juyeon Song sang the role of Aïda in a slightly dark and appropriately weighted soprano. Tenor Kevin Courtemanche sang the role of Radamés vibrantly and energetically. Jennifer Roderer sang the wonderfully dramatic mezzo role of Amneris. The priest Ramfis was sung by bass William Pickersgill, Soprano Margaret Valeriano delivered a sweet and pure toned version of the priestess. The orchestra was kept in fine order by Maestro Jonathan Khuner. 



Presented by Berkeley Opera at 8 p.m. Friday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts. For tickets and information, call (925) 798-1300, 

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