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Reviewed by:
  • AIDA by Giuseppe Verdi and Antonio Ghislanzoni
  • Brandon LaReau
AIDA. By Giuseppe Verdi and Antonio Ghislanzoni. Directed by Lotte de Beer. Paris National Opera, Opéra Bastille, Paris. Filmed without Audience. February 10, 2021.

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Sondra Radvanovsky and Aida’s puppet in “O Patria Mia.”

In her Paris National Opera debut, Dutch director Lotte de Beer tried admirably to decolonize Verdi’s Aida (1871) by eschewing the blackface so familiar from its performance history. But she could not escape the show’s trademark Orientalism. Rather than cast singers of color, de Beer opted to use “African-looking” life-sized puppets for Aida, her father, and the Ethiopian slaves. Effectively shutting out performers of color from a prominent production on a major stage, this technique was at once innovative and incredibly tone-deaf. In the wake of resounding global calls for racial justice, the choice to cast inanimate objects in the Ethiopian roles further shows how disconnected opera companies are with their communities and how unprepared directors are to adapt to the new social standards that audiences demand.

Since the production is only offered on film, audiences rely solely upon the camera for visuals, severely troubling the audience’s relationship with the puppets. Manipulated by a team of two or three puppeteers, each puppet’s team included a person of color who operated the left arm and head, while the white vocalists lurked just off the upstage shoulder. The problem here is the camera focused principally on the white singers and not the puppets, essentially erasing Aida’s and Amonasro’s Ethiopian-ness. Through the camera’s whitewashing and the reduction of the Ethiopian monarchy to inanimate Others, this production lost all the nationalistic tension written into the libretto, while simultaneously reducing the grandeur and spectacle of Verdi’s music to comedic underscoring for strange pantomimes and Victorian preening.

The “puppetface” Aida and father looked un-threatening and concealed no danger when next to lavishly costumed principals and ensemble. With the obstacle removed, Aida’s act 3 aria “O Patria Mia,” felt insignificant as the camera switched between wide shots of abstract projected trees and tight shots on the soprano singing Aida, Sondra Radvanovsky. The puppets’ mouths did not move, and puppets were largely expressionless save for an occasional well-placed head turn, further distancing Aida the object from Aida the voice. These shortcomings, offering no clear idea of where the audience should focus, made it difficult as a viewer to hurt with Aida as she realized she would never return home; do we watch the singer and feel Aida’s pain through Radvanovsky, do we watch the abstract projections, or do we focus on the puppet Aida slowly pacing the stage? The camera rarely gave [End Page 566]

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The company of Paris Opera’s Aida recreating one of many famous works of art during the reimagined “Triumphal March” from act 2.

us the chance to do all three, further complicating the audience’s relationship with this production. At times, Radvanovsky took great effort to match the physicality of the puppet (the Triumphal March scene where she first realizes her father has been captured, for example, and the act 3 confrontation between father and daughter); this posture matching was extremely effective in these scenes because it forced the camera to have to focus on both puppet and singer. Perhaps illustrating a king’s incompleteness without his kingdom or how completely broken and destitute Amonasro is, his puppet had no legs. Again, this further complicated the audience’s relationship with the opera, because it introduced the idea of the puppets as a metaphor for something other than race, completely stripping any remaining agency away from Aida and her father and allowing the audience to ignore the puppets and focus solely on the singers.

By allowing the audience to ignore the Ethiopian status of Aida and her father, the audience could ignore their slave status; Aida’s delicate position as a princess in Ethiopia and a slave in Egypt disappeared, as did the duality of coding Egypt as Europe and having Ethiopia stand alone at the (already open...


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