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Review: Anna Netrebko Sings Her First ‘Aida’ in Salzburg

Even star singers are forced to recede when collaborating with this conductor: It is no coincidence that in the final seconds of the opera, the only illumination in the theater was focused squarely on the podium. (And don’t you forget it, the spotlight seemed to say.)


The white-brick set (by Christian Schmidt) echoes classic stagings.

Monika Rittershaus/Salzburger Festspiele

It is true that Mr. Muti creates effects you didn’t quite think possible. The phrases of the prelude at first seemed daringly separate and wispy, bits of metallic thread, before they began to weave together and almost physically coalesce. The span of “Aida,” from the personal to the epic, was distilled in just a couple of minutes.

The Vienna Philharmonic plays for him with astonishing virtuosity: strings of tactile fullness; tangy winds; bursts of ideally round and peppery brasses. The chorus’s temple chants at the end of the first act had eerie mistiness, as if enacting rather than just describing the birth of the world.

But as an operatic pit band, that Philharmonic virtuosity can tip over into seeming overcharged and overdetailed, as if “Aida” were an orchestral tone poem with some singing way, way in the background. The drama becomes purely about sound, not about the characters onstage. The surges of strings during Aida’s duet with her father, Amonasro (the sturdy baritone Luca Salsi), didn’t seem like their heartbeat; they were just strings played with relentless gorgeousness, something to admire rather than feel.

This was about the least intimate “Aida” possible, with even passing moments — loud or soft, fast or slow — examined, polished, held up for display. All that emphasis grew wearying, even deadening, and the climactic judgment scene was slowed to the point of trudging.

Mr. Muti’s operas in concert have in recent years seemed more alive than his staged productions, though his “Manon Lescaut” with Ms. Netrebko in Rome in 2014, their first collaboration, felt more personal and unaffected than this. There, they seemed to be putting on an opera, rather than an edifice.


Ms. Netrebko and the tenor Francesco Meli, as Radamès.

Barbara Gindl/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The staging of “Aida” chilled things, too. In her art, Ms. Neshat, an Iranian-American, has shown the painful ways in which gender colors, and heightens, the experience of repression and exile. At least on a thematic level, “Aida” might have seemed like a good fit for her, and she has claimed an identification with the title character. “Sometimes the boundaries between Aida and myself are blurred,” she said in an interview with festival organizers.

Turbulent by Shirin Neshat Video by myfuzions

But this production doesn’t let Neshat be Neshat. Beyond a couple of brief, dull video projections, what’s onstage here bears next to no relationship to her haunting artistic practice. I had hoped her “Aida” would be more like the magnetic 2005 “Tristan und Isolde” in which Bill Viola’s video works were a constant, dominating presence, or like the series of operas done by William Kentridge — whose “Wozzeck” opens here on Wednesday — in his distinctive pen-and-ink style.

Ms. Neshat’s “Aida,” though, could have come from anyone, anywhere in the world, and the conception of the characters feels recycled from a thousand revivals. The singers’ old-fashioned gestural vocabulary — arms raised to foreheads in stylized attitudes of suffering, or outstretched to heaven — supposedly died half a century ago. The white-brick set (by Christian Schmidt) echoes the looming, anonymous structures that Richard Peduzzi designed for Patrice Chéreau’s classic opera stagings, but without Peduzzian ominousness.

The powerful Egyptians who rule in “Aida” are here a hodgepodge of democratic and theocratic: The military is dressed in 19th-century-ish uniforms; the royals wear silky, Western-style gowns, like those on many in the audience; the priests look like a vague mixture of Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim clerics. (The costumes are by Tatyana van Walsum.) The captured Ethiopians — seen first staring into the camera in a video projected during Aida’s aria “Ritorna vincitor” — have a white stripe down their faces and wear blue-gray refugee chic.

There is the kernel of a provocative notion here, that what bedevils the contemporary world is a kind of unspoken alliance of military, political and religious elites — both Western and Eastern, fanatic and liberal — against the huddled masses who actually suffer in clashes of civilizations.

An unmistakably contemporary “Aida,” like the brutal one Calixto Bieito directed in Basel, Switzerland, in 2010, would have set the opera’s struggles uncomfortably right here, right now. But Ms. Neshat’s tastefully, drearily timeless, placeless production, coupled with acting that would have seemed stale in the 1950s, ensures that any political critique she intended is too wan to trouble Salzburg’s fashionable crowd.

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