Abu Dhabi Festival's lavish co-production 'Aida' is a show-stopper in Madrid

The collaboration with Teatro Real further enhances the UAE capital's Unesco designation as a 'city of music'

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When Aida first appeared in Cairo's Khedivial Opera House in 1871, superstar conductor Giuseppe Verdi was partly pleased.

While satisfied with the enthusiastic reception for the production, he was reportedly dismayed at the audience being limited to the elite and ruling class.

Hence, he considered the performance in Italy's La Scala the following year as being the “real” premiere.

Verdi’s displeasure, perhaps a little misguided as those in attendance commissioned the work, is nevertheless part of a long opera tradition where the second performance is often the litmus test of its quality.

Such was the case in Madrid on Tuesday, when the Spanish city’s prestigious opera house Teatro Real hosted a follow-up performance of Aida after a high-profile premiere the night before.

“You don't have the usual audience on the first show so there is that added stress,” says Teatro Real's principal guest conductor Nicola Luisotti.

“But the second show is when the public arrives. They are the ones who have been waiting a long time to return to the opera house and see the production.

“While the music is of course beautiful and legendary, there is still hard work that needs to be done to ensure everyone appreciates it the way it is supposed to be.”

Judging by the long standing ovation from the full audience, the new version of Aida, co-produced by the Abu Dhabi Festival, is on course for success.

With 20 shows planned at the venue until November 14, it is a lush and faithful staging of the tragedy.

Set in Ancient Egypt convulsed by war, Aida follows a doomed love triangle of the titular enslaved Ethiopian princess, Egyptian military commander Radames and the Pharaoh's daughter Amneris.

Argentine director and costume designer Hugo de Ana conjures the majesty and opulence of the Egyptian royal court through some sumptuous and commanding stage designs, which are large though refined.

This is particularly exemplified by the wardrobe of the ruling class, featuring startling silky robes of turquoise, azure and mauve.

It is an elegance matched by Russian soprano Anna Netrebko’s bravura performance as Aida.

Fully invested in what is an emotionally taxing role, Netbreko summons the vulnerability and sensuality of one of opera's greatest and most tragic heroines.

While it can be argued the use of three-dimensional projections to enhance the depth of the stage is not necessary, Aida is elegant comfort food for those who prefer their operas traditional and full of pomp.

A nod to Ancient Egypt

The opera ‘Aida’ is set in Ancient Egypt. Photo: Javier del Real / Teatro Real

While innovation in opera is a relative concept, Luisotti says a new staging of a masterpiece still needs to bring something new to the table.

"Sometimes it is not about taking an opera and changing everything. Sometimes, it is also about what you choose to focus on and adding that new light on to a different part of the score," he says.

“So to achieve that as a composer, you need to move away from respecting the score and, instead, love it so much that you are driven to add a new perspective to it.”

Luisotti’s contribution to Aida is both subtle and effective.

In a musical nod to the region, the Italian worked with members of the cast, including Netrebko, to add some quarter tones — a musical mode intrinsic in ancient and modern Middle Eastern music — to their vocals.

“And that is hard to do because the western music system is half-tones — and Verdi’s sophisticated score is a product of the 19th century.

“But it was good to attempt this as a way to pay respect to such a great civilisation like Egypt.”

The value of co-productions

Abu Dhabi Festival has a growing list of international co-productions.

This includes Mahler's powerful symphony Resurrection for the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence in France in July and the dance show De Scheherazade a Yo, Carmen with Spanish flamenco dancer Maria Pages.

Scroll through the gallery below for images from 'De Scheherazade a Yo, Carmen'

After a critically acclaimed opening run of performances in Barcelona in May, the latter production is set to embark on a two-year world tour taking in Europe and South America.

“The value of partnerships is in their ability to provide opportunities to exchange ideas and nurture creativity,” says Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, the festival’s artistic director and founder of its administering body, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.

“It’s not about creating art for its own sake. It’s about partnerships that have the same visions, goals and values of respect and understanding to create something that makes a strong impact.”

When it comes to Aida, Alkhamis-Kanoo describes the production as “monumental and emblematic” of Teatro Real’s and Abu Dhabi Festival’s approach to cultural programming.

With the opera industry returning from the disruption caused by the pandemic, facilitating such ambitious projects is imperative to support artists and keep the genre vital for a new generation of audiences.

“The most rewarding aspect is knowing that we have influenced and brought about change with our contributions to the international creative scene,” she says.

“Shaping the future for the next generation through our productions and commissions and the joy I see in the eyes of all those involved when a work comes together is to me worth more than the financial gain of a co-production.”

Abu Dhabi centre stage as the 'City of Music’

Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation founder Huda Alkhamis Kanoo receives the Medal of Honour from Medal of Honour Queen Sofia of Spain

Aida continues Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation’s enduring relationship with Spain.

As part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, Spanish opera titans Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo played in the UAE in 2007 and 2013 respectively.

Such cultural contributions have led to Alkhamis-Kanoo becoming the first Arab individual to receive the Medal of Honour, the highest distinction awarded by the prestigious Spanish institution Reina Sofia School of Music in May, in addition to the cultural distinction, Friend of Spain, by the Spanish government earlier this month for advancing the cultural dialogue between the two nations.

"Spain is unique in that it celebrates its Arab history and this experience makes it such a pleasure to link our wonderful cultures together," she says.

"With Spain, we share values of innovation, creation and respect, and its warm, welcoming culture makes it open to new partnerships and collaborations.

With the festival’s rolling international calendar of events and the return to full-capacity performances in Abu Dhabi, Alkhamis-Kanoo says the capital is more than living up to its Unesco designation as a City of Music.

"It reflects our resolved efforts to create rich cultural experiences both at home and abroad," she says.

"We are proud to be playing a part in contributing to growing that cultural ecosystem in our beloved city.”

‘Aida’ will be performed at Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain until November 14. More information is available at www.teatroreal.es

Scroll through the gallery below for images from 'Mahler's Resurrection'

Updated: October 27, 2022, 2:24 PM