Even after a series of dispiriting lockdown postponements, the pandemic continued to play havoc with Pure Harmony Musical Events’ Reading/Concert performance of After Aida. Musical Director Adrian Tamburini relinquished the piano stool to replace a COVID-stricken bass-baritone Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, while Jane Matheson took Tamburini’s place at the piano at 48 hours notice. This was an indication of just how determined Director/Producer David Meadows, Tamburini and other cast members were to have the project go ahead.
And there is no doubt that Julian Mitchell’s 1985 “play-with-music” is a worthwhile project that deserves serious attention from other companies able to mount a full scale production with orchestra. Commissioned by Brian McMaster, managing director of the Welsh National Opera, for company tours to smaller theatres, it allows a flexible number of Verdi “hits” to be included. In this production they were sung in English – a less than ideal language for Italian opera, but possibly a wise choice in terms of accessibility. Some compromise should be considered, however, for key repeated phrases. Otello’s plea for a final kiss – “un bacio” – after killing Desdemona certainly sounds much better in the original.
After Aida begins with the final trio from Aida, in this case sung by soprano Michelle Cook, tenor Michael Lapina and mezzo-soprano Sarah Sweeting. This is the cue for examining the following silence. Why by 1879 has the great Italian composer not written an opera for almost a decade after Aida? Mitchell has Verdi’s first words suggesting a lack of confidence as he rails against critics and, later, singers, audiences and theatre practices. Wagner is in favour and Verdi seems to have had his day. His friend, conductor Franco Faccio (Andrew Cullimore) and Giulio Ricordi (Paolo Bartolomei), the son of his publisher, try to drag Verdi away from his farming pursuits and collaborate with Arrigo Boito (Adam T Perkins) as librettist in a new opera. Despite initially considering it a hopeless task, Verdi’s second wife, the former celebrated bel canto soprano Giuseppina Strepponi (Francesca Waters) joins them.
Tref Gare made a convincing irascible, self-doubting, grudge-bearing Verdi, energetic in his resistance to working with somebody who had insulted him. Mitchell has provided him with some witty dialogue, which he handled with easy aplomb. Perkins’ Boito was a ball of energy – petulant, excited, theatrical – in keeping with the dialogue – and, like Verdi, afraid that he was not up to the task. Although this was a reading, Perkins appeared to have memorised all his lines and was able to throw a spectacular tantrum. Waters was terrific as Strepponi – her no-nonsense brand of practicality a great foil to the male histrionics. Clear diction and good voice projection lent further strength to her characterisation.
Arias, duets, trios and quartets, chiefly by Verdi, were selected from various operas in the first half and were drawn from Otello after interval. Despite taking on the bass-baritone roles at short notice, Tamburini always sounded confident and was in excellent voice. Sweetman made a fine contribution to the ensembles vocally and dramatically and more singing from her would have been welcome. Michelle Cook displayed great commitment to the roles she undertook, particularly in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, where strong lower notes impressed. There is no doubt that Michael Lapina was given the most formidable task in the number of taxing items he sang. He has a very pleasant tenor voice and sounded increasingly secure as the evening progressed.
Boito is not exactly a household name, and it is a curious piece of synchronicity that After Aida happens to coincide with two of Opera Australia’s current Melbourne productions: Verdi’s La Traviata and Boito’s Mefistofele, with an excerpt giving us a little sample of the latter.
Meadows, Tamburini and cast are to be congratulated on their persistence in bringing this entertaining and illuminating project to fruition, and for demonstrating that it is well worth taking to the next level.
Heather Leviston reviewed Pure Harmony Musical Events’ production of “After Aida”, performed at Athenæum 2 on March 20, 2022.