Review: Waterboarding 'Aida,' buoyant 'Music Man'

Associated Press Published: July 16, 2012
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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — Two topiary elephants greet visitors as they stroll up the lawn toward the Alice Busch Opera Theater for this year's Glimmerglass Festival.

The creatures, made of grapevine and willow over a rebar frame, are called "the Aida elephants," but the charming sight is worlds apart from the grim spectacle that confronts the audience when the curtain rises on Verdi's opera, the summer's opening production.

There are no elephants, pyramids or other traditional lavish effects in Francesca Zambello's version — but there is waterboarding and lethal injection. Updated from ancient Egypt to a modern Muslim state, this "Aida," seen at its second performance on Friday night, tries to be radical and provocative but mostly ends up settling for cheap sensationalism.

Happily, the season's second offering is an altogether different story: a buoyant production of Meredith Willson's classic Broadway musical "The Music Man" that opened the following night. There is updating afoot here as well, but its effect is benign, if gratuitous.

Zambello, who is artistic director of the festival, said she wanted her "Aida" to "bring out the intimate and personal nature of the story." That's a fine idea, but there's little that's intimate about her staging. Instead, we're assaulted by noise, crowds and clutter at every turn.

The set by Lee Savage depicts a room in a decaying palace where a metal scaffold serves as both royal grandstand and priestly altar. As soon the subdued prelude ends, the stage reverberates with artillery fire and Egyptian soldiers rush onstage. They remain there distractingly, fiddling with laptops, while the warrior Radames sings his aria, "Celeste Aida," musing on his love for the Ethiopian slave of the title.

In the scene that follows, Verdi establishes the opera's love triangle by having Radames, Aida and the jealous princess Amneris interact together — but here, too, the scene is muddled by the presence of the soldiers, who whoop and leer at Aida when she enters.

When Radames is eventually put on trial for treason, Amneris laments his fate and rages against the unforgiving priests. Much of the power of this scene comes from watching the once-haughty princess suffering alone onstage, while the chorus of priests is heard from the wings. But in this production, the trial takes place in full view, with Radames tied to a chair and repeatedly waterboarded.

In Verdi's original, Radames is then sealed in an underground tomb where he is slowly asphyxiated along with Aida, who has hidden there to join him. At Glimmerglass, he's strapped to a gurney, wheeled shirtless to an upright position at the front of the stage and given a lethal injection. It's a slow-acting poison that allows him to sing the final scene, though his body is wracked by spasms that are as unpleasant to watch as they are at odds with the ethereal music.



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