Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore in Aida | Opera Theatre

Three hours and 15 minutes, with nary a finger sandwich on which to subsist. Such are the challenges, trials and tribulations of the opera reviewer. That and wearing a monkey-suit, even in summer. Happily, the clear, cool evening Sydney presented justified the satin-collared suit. But the pace of life didn’t permit an early dinner before Aida.

Typically, this lack of sustenance would compromise my concentration, but Graeme Murphy’s production had so much to offer, my tummy remained tame throughout. This may seem a trance tribute, but it’s a very real one. But of course, I’ve other tributes to pay. In fact, it’s hard to know where to begin, since the lavish scale of the work, upon which no expense seems to have been spared, is almost overwhelming.

Let’s begin with the composer, Guiseppe Verdi, whose four-act epic premiered, piquantly, in the Khedivial Opera House, Cairo, December 24, 1871. The libretto is by Antonio Ghislanzoni (is it possible he was known as Toni Zoni to his friends?) and has its roots in a scenario by Auguste Mariette (or, just possibly, Temistocle Solera if you want to be controversial), a French Egyptologist. So, full marks for research and authenticity. Mind you, anything less would’ve been unacceptable, for it was commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt.

This production is a little more recent, having debuted at His Majesty’s in Perth in October 2008, performed by the WA Opera. Ghislanzoni had more still to go on, since Camille du Locle had penned the story in prose, making adaptation all the easier. Metastasio’s Nitteti, which saw light of day one-hundred-and-fifteen years earlier, had a profound influence, also.

Having spent some time looking at artists’ impressions of the original costumes, I’ve the sense Roger Kirk has done his homework as well as Ghislanzoni did his. No doubt allowing plenty of scope for stylisation and poetic licence, there’s still an authentic Old Kingdom feeling present in the garments. It struck me yet again that the Egyptians were modernists in all sort of ways, not least fashion. There’s a sleekly angular, unearthly, veritably spaceage quality to their design. And (Captain) Kirk’s. In any case, his costumes are superlative; in Egypt’s case, the cat’s whiskers seems an apt descriptor. Amneris’ gown alone explodes as radiantly as the sun; while the priestly class, by dint of their preposterously futuristic hats as much as anything, seem not only impressively, but supernaturally tall (as elongated as ET, but better-dressed). It’s a wardrobe of finery you just want to get amongst. Beam me down, Scottie!

But the aesthetic pleasure of this production are multifarious. Roger Kirk’s sets have been conceptualised by Murphy. Short of actual pyramids, or staging the work on location, the scale is immense and yet, there are one or two things that look a little dicky and some of the superimpositions, by projection designers, The Brothers Gruchy, are so busy and gaudy as to often resemble Egyptian wrapping-paper. Well, papyrus. In fact, many of the projections seemed to be more about developing their showreel than actually enhancing our experience. Spare me the indistinct, fluttering blue butterflies, which seemed to have so little relevance. I was much more taken by simple ideas, such as the billowing black velour, which evoked the swell of the sea so faithfully, while conductor Arvo Volmer’s arms billowed to reflect the roundness of the score. A beautiful, golden moment.

It’s difficult to find words to adequately describe Damien Cooper’s surpassing lighting design. Surpassing, yes. Surpassing most theatre lighting, per se. And surpassing even his own best work. Throughout, it was lighting not as mere technical assistance, but as art.

Since the director is also a choreographer, we got two art forms for the price of one. Built into this opera is a veritable ballet, such is the influence of dance and movement. And like Cooper, Murphy has almost outdone himself with sequences of such wit, originality, sensuality and athleticism you just gasp at his untiring genius, all over again. A diminutive fellow in all, except genius. What other dance director could reinvent himself so completely, as an opera director?

The singers and musicians have Verdi’s score to fall back on, lucky buggers. It’s hard to make that sound crook, even if you try. By all accounts, Verdi was exacting in research and in his demands for the libretto. Despite its sophistication on the page, in orchestration and in the playing, the score could hardly be more romantic or accessible. (But then, he was Italian.) It consummately vindicates his aspiration to have the music advance the story. The other cogent observation to be made, it seems to me, is that, for so-called grand opera, the grandeur only really pertains at a couple of points; much of the rest almost relegates it to chamber opera, such is its intimacy: compare and contrast the strident, anthemic Triumphal March, from act two, for example, with the tender, far-gone, in-deep sentimentality of Radames entrance aria, Celeste Aida, reputed as one of the most difficult in all opera since the tenor’s voice is cold.

He created some exceedingly demanding settings for singers apart from the above. There are many points at which a singer, or singers, are called upon to surmount the full force of the orchestra. Rosario la Spina as Radames leaves creditable in the shade with the aforementioned big entrance. His warm euphony (the Canadians gave him something of a hard time for a supposed lack of subtlety and finesse which begins to justify Canadian jokes, I reckon) waste the fore from the first and throughout the opera, even if his theatricality is a little on the flat side. In that sense, he doesn’t really convince as an heroic warrior. Paul Whelan is, of course, yet another outstanding Kiwi bass baritone; his tone so rich, round and reverberant, one wonders if there’s something in all that Canterbury lamb and hogget. Or is it the Marlborough sauvignon? His performance as high priest, Ramfis, is highly competent.

Milijana Nikolic is utterly beguiling in her role. That she sports the mezzo soprano she does makes her a complete goddess. On the night, however, her voice took a long time to get up to operating temperature. Once there, it exhibited all the shimmer one might expect but, before that, it sounded rather recessive, a little strained and as if she was singing through a gauze. A pity. Maybe a winter ill was in play. By way of compensation, the understatement and latency with which she communicated her sadness, tenderness, jealousy, torment, unbridled fury and regret, as Amneris, the princess in love with Radames, was a lesson in how, even in a large venue, nuance can triumph.

Yet another Kiwi baritone, Jud Arthur, proved he had both vocal presence and the requisite gravitas as Amneris’ father, the king of Egypt and Andrew Brunsdon’s heldentenor stood out, despite a relatively incidental role as the messenger. Thanks to industrial-strength makeup, Warwick Fyfe looked positively swarthy as the king of Ethiopia, with his heavy head of dreads, his dark chocolate bass matching his would-be skin colour. He looked for all the world like he should have a big spliff balanced on his lower lip.

Sharon Prero was there, too, as the high priestess, but here were two other stars of this show: the lusty chorus and the astonishing American soprano Latonia Moore as Aida. Not only does she have conspicuous clarity and superbly unsullied, open tone, but thunderous, awe-inspiring power. The orchestra, even when they ramp it all the way up to 11, is barely a match. But it’s not just about power: she has genuine authority, thanks to commensurate skills as a character actor. And the delicate control of her voice in more subdued moments shows just how proficient she is in harnessing that power, making for dynamics such as I’ve never heard on an opera stage. Her legato, as well, is flawless. It’s hard to believe her Met debut was only a matter of months ago; in Aida at that, stepping in at the 11th hour for Violeta Urmana. I’m not exactly going out on a limb in tipping her as one of the voices of the century.

OA’s Aida is about as rich a tapestry as a company, and opera, can weave.

The details: Aida plays the Sydney Opera House’s Opera Theatre for 13 more performances until October 13. Tickets on the company website.