Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point, March 27

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

The giant, crumbling head of Queen Nefertiti dominating the stage for this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida looks genuinely spectacular in its stunning location and is used to great effect, with a particularly striking image at the end of the production. But with the rest of the spectacle feeling decidedly ad hoc, the opening night of Aida well and truly belonged to American soprano Latonia Moore in the title role.

For its fourth harbour outing, Opera Australia has chosen Verdi’s Aida, which combines lavish spectacle with an intimate love triangle between Egyptian military commander Radames, Ethiopian slave Aida (later revealed to be a Princess) and the jealous Princess Amneris, daughter of the Pharoah.

In the first part, it’s spectacle all the way as director Gale Edwards and designer Mark Thompson fill the stage with ceremonial pomp and bucket-loads of glitz.

The costuming mixes styles and eras (“a world caught between times” says the program): men in contemporary suits and others in Fascist military uniforms, ornately clad priests looking straight out of ancient Egypt, OTT golden gowns for the Egyptian women (dubbed the Kardashian chorus by the cast) in which the singers look rather awkward, and vibrantly coloured, boldly patterned fabrics for the Ethiopians.

There doesn’t seem to be any coherent vision behind it; instead it just looks like a lot of disparate visual elements. Worse, the camp costumes for the dancers look oddly out of place, even crass. There are space age storm troopers in Latex (or some such fabric) with helmets and jackboots who would be right at home in the Mardi Gras parade, can-can girls (yes, really) and ceremonial male dancers whose tight black outfits with chains shout bondage. Apparently they’re jackals, though I couldn’t pick that from my seat near the back. Dancing with golden-clad ballet dancers, it is a low point of the production. Lucas Jervies’ clichéd choreography doesn’t help.

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s true that the positioning of the priests and soldiers around the stage frequently looks dazzling under Matt Scott’s highly dramatic, coloured lighting, but then a distracting gaudy or camp element will intrude, undercutting the effect.

Oil drums stacked at the back of the stage suggest wealth built on petrol – though this isn’t true of Egypt – but nothing more is done with them. Edwards also includes rows of black coffins, which are set out on stage, each with a single lily on them, in the famous Triumphal March. It’s a powerful image alongside the spoils of war and the spectacle of four camels and fireworks, but the politics of the piece don’t reverberate anywhere near as strongly as promised in pre-publicity.

At the same time, any sense of genuine human intimacy is lost in the first half of the production with Amneris, Aida and Radames frequently singing to each other across acres of stage.

After interval, when things quieten and human emotion is allowed to shine through, the production is much more successful. A stronger, clearer focus on the leading characters, positioned close together centrestage, opens the way for us to engage emotionally.

Even then there is a strange piece of staging when a metal mesh frame rises from the front of the stage (creating sight line issues) and then lowers again later. I think it was meant to suggest the opening and closing of the vault in which Radames is buried alive. However, there is no sense whatsoever of he and Aida being sealed in a dark tomb.

Fortunately Latonia Moore is superb. Singing with great beauty and warmth across her range from a rich, strong bottom register to a glowing top, her gorgeous voice outshines the spectacle. Acting with great conviction, she brings real heart to the production.

As Amneris, Serbian-born mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic gives a compelling, passionate performance, convincingly moving from imperiousness to heartfelt, bitter regret.

Walter Fraccaro is less persuasive as Radames. He sings with power but little expressiveness, while his voice showed a tendency to wobble on opening night. Acting-wise he has little charisma and next to no chemistry with Moore.

Among the rest of the cast, Michael Honeyman as Amonasro and David Parkin as Ramphis are particularly impressive.

There are two alternating casts with Daria Masiero, Arnold Rawls, Jacqueline Dark and Warwick Fyfe leading the other.

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Verdi’s music is glorious, of course, and the orchestra led by Brian Castles-Onion does it justice, while the sound, though muddy at times, is overall reasonably good.

The production is worth seeing if just for Latonia Moore and the Queen Nefertiti set piece. Some of the staging is undeniably spectacular, but compared to last year’s brilliant, hard-hitting, contemporary production of Madama Butterfly, staged by members of Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus, Aida is rather disappointing.

Aida runs until April 26

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 29

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Guy Edmonds has wicked fun with The Witches

Guy Edmonds in The Witches. Photo: Brett Boardman

Guy Edmonds in The Witches. Photo: Brett Boardman

As a child, Guy Edmonds loved Roald Dahl’s books with their twisted stories full of irreverent, sometimes grotesque humour.

“They are a challenge to young people. It’s not sugar and lollipops – it’s sugar and lollipops and wolves,” he says with relish.

Edmonds is best known for his role in the ABC’s A Moody Christmas and for playing Timothy Conigrave in the original Australian stage production of Holding the Man, a role he later reprised in London.

Among his many other credits, he also portrayed the young Rupert Murdoch in David Williamson’s play Rupert for Melbourne Theatre Company last year, and when the production toured to Washington in the US. He will feature in Rupert again in the forthcoming Sydney season at the Theatre Royal (November 25 – December 14).

But first, he is giving full vent to his love of Dahl in a one-man stage version of The Witches, adapted from a play by David Wood.

A sell-out hit in Melbourne in June, with interest now from London and New York, The Witches arrives at the SBW Stables Theatre later this month just in time for the school holidays.

Dahl’s witches don’t wear black pointy hats and ride broomsticks. They disguise themselves as ordinary women but they are every bit as evil. Revolted by children, who smell like dog droppings to them, they plan to get turn all of England’s youngsters into mice. A young boy and his grandmother, who accidentally overhear their plot, set out to stop them.

The show is the brainchild of director/choreographer Lucas Jervies and began in 2012 as a project at NIDA where he did the directing course.

“Egil Kipste, the head of the directing course, gets me in from time to time to work with the directing students,” says Edmonds.

“He was doing an audition workshop with them so he said, ‘here’s a real actor, give them an audition piece and work with them’ so it was like a mock audition.

“So I worked with all the directors one of them being Lucas and he gave me the Grand High Witch’s monologue (from Wood’s play) when she enters the ballroom: ‘You may ree-moof your gloves! You may ree-moof your shoes!’

“I did this crazy (read) – Lucas says like an ape crossed with Hitler. I just say a camp Hitler. Lucas says in that moment he actually thought (a one-man version) might be achieved, because he’d toyed with the idea but couldn’t quite visualise it.”

Edmonds plays nine characters including the young boy who narrates the tale, his chain-smoking grandmother, the greedy kid Bruno, a French waiter and the evil Grand High Witch.

Edmonds delineates them without changing costumes, but vocally and physically.

“It’s not a dance piece or physical theatre but there’s a lot of movement in it, more than I would normally do in a play,” he says.

“There are very clear voice shifts between the characters but when it moves at such a rapid-fire pace you need physical signifiers as well. That’s where Lucas was great because he has a dance background as a choreographer and an ex-dancer. He works at Sydney Dance Company now (as rehearsal director). So he was really good to work with. As an actor you consider what your body is doing to a point but, for me, never in the way that I have done with this show.”

As for props, he has a large chest, a colander, a saucepan, a ball of twine, a toothbrush and a paint tin.

“Every object has seven or eight meanings as the play goes,” says Edmonds. “When we started, the chest was full of stuff and in the first week we just threw everything at the wall just to see which would stick and it was a process of elimination. We had a tennis racket and said, ‘OK, well we use the tennis racket for that but is there a way to use the saucepan instead?’ So it was a process of whittling away until we got to these five essential props.

“It’s really just the power of the imagination. Pure storytelling. It’s the kind of show that if the lighting board went down and all we had were the house lights and none of my props showed up I could still do it.”

The show, which runs for a breathless 40 minutes, is recommended for all the family from age six upwards.

“The brief for the show was to make adults feel like children and I would like to think that we’ve succeeded in that,” says Edmonds.

“It’s certainly a show for all ages but a wonderful show to bring young people to. When we did the Malthouse season (in Melbourne) one night we had three generations of a family – there were 10-year old kids, the parents and the grandparents and by the end they all had the same expression on their face.”

Edmonds will be returning to Griffin next year as part of the 2015 Griffin Studio artistic development program.

“My friend and writing partner Matt Zeremes (with whom he co-starred in Holding the Man) are Boomshaka Films, a production company that develops TV and film,” says Edmonds.

“Through our one-year residency at the Griffin Studio we are going to develop a musical  set on Christmas Island. It’s a musical comedy – with quite a sting in the tail. It’s called Rock the Boat.”

Edmonds and Zeremes will co-write the book and lyrics. The name of the composer has yet to be announced.

In the meantime, Edmonds is thrilled to be at Griffin performing The Witches again, saying: “It’s totally exhausting but a real joy to do.”

The Witches, SBW Stables Theatre, September 24 – October 5. Bookings: griffintheatre.com.au or 9361 3817

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 7