I once attended, somewhat unwillingly, the national tour of The Rockettes: Christmas Edition or whatever it was called, when it played in Boston. I went because it was a female family thing (mothers who were sisters and the daughters of those mothers) and was billed as a nice afternoon out in Boston that included lunch.
I will not go into the entertainment other than to say that it was not my cup of tea (which is why I was reluctant to go—I already knew it was not my cup of tea), but it clearly thrilled the other members of my entourage and, I believe, the entire rest of the audience. It was, okay. Sparkly, but okay.
And then they brought out the camel.
One doesn’t necessarily equate syncopated, coordinated, high-kicking glam girls in matching makeup with the manger scene from Bethlehem, but there it was on stage in all its sheparded, animal-husbandried glory. There were sheep, certainly, but that camel…
Camels, I believe, are not very good at being “entertainment.” For one thing, they spit. On you. Even if you are standing very far away. For another thing, when they decide that they will not do something, they will…not…do…it. When they are done for the day, as it were, no amount of cajoling or, uh, leash-pulling, will entice them to stand back up. They are camels, dammit, and they will do what they like.
So that camel at the end of my Rockettesian afternoon alarmed me, because it wasn’t behaving camel-ly at all. As soon as I saw it I thought, “That camel has been heavily medicated.”
But, oo, a camel! Its mere presence brought thunderous applause from every (other) member of the audience! Because if a camel’s on stage, the Baby Jesus must be too!
Which brings us to the actual topic of this entry, the Met’s Aida, watched by me through the miracle of their “Met: Live in HD” broadcast series.
Someone said there’d be elephants
There was, I sensed, relief that the Met’s Aida was going to be “the Met’s Aida.” Not a thing was being changed in this production, and after all the hubaba-boo with their updated Tosca, people who know opera (which is not me) appeared to be glad that they were going to get their Aida; they knew what they were going to get, and that’s what they wanted, by gum!
“Their” Aida was the one they had been watching/seeing/attending/listening to since 1988, and boy, what a flashback.
The set smacked of 80’s excess. A great big humungo smack, right in the face. It was like it was saying, “LOOKIT ALL THE MONEY WE SPENT ON THIS! JUST BECAUSE WE HAD IT!”
The words that came to mind as soon as the curtain parted were: gigantic; enormous; huge. It was all “too much of a muchness,” as my friend Stephen Fry would say (okay that’s a lie, he’s not my friend) (but he would say it).
Whilst watching the whole engorged production I figured out the story on my own. The story is a love triangle, consisting of a conquering hero (Radamès) and the Egyptian princess (Amneris) who loves him and the slave girl (Aida) whom he loves. A power play to be sure, especially when Aida reveals herself to be the daughter of the King of Ethiopia, Egypt’s sworn-and-recently-conquered enemy. In some ways, it’s a small opera, an intitmate one, even, about girl-loves-boy-loves-another-girl. All the razzmatazz surrounding is is mere diversion.
The first two acts did not engage me one whit, because a lot of stuff happening on stage didn’t seem related to the story. Lots of vestal virgins (well, I assumed they were vestal), big-wig Egyptian priests, fan fanners, warriors, oh it just never ended. I thought perhaps that there was an additional plague on Egypt that wasn’t mentioned in the bible: the Plague of the Too Many People on Stage Just Standing Around.
And now for the elephants
The “Triumphal Entry” was plagued by the above plague, except for the gaggle of guys who entered stage right, exited stage left, then ran back around backstage to pick up a different type of spear and reappeared stage right as a different platoon of soldiers.
And two horses. Just the two. I applauded the production’s restraint.
I stopped paying attention during the first two acts because the singers were, what’s the word, singing. Not acting. Not interacting. Just singing.
I mean the singing was Met-quality (i.e. stupendous) but opera is about story telling, and opera singers need to act as well as sing (which is why opera is hard, hard, hard).
The professions of love, the fear of never obtaining love, the keeping of secrets, all of that was in the opera, but the singers sang to the audience, not to each other, so none of it had any punch. A multi-hyphenated word sprang to mind: yadda-yadda-yadda.
But then, the third act arrives, and the opera starts to live. Aida runs into her father (it’d take too long to explain) and in despair of her situation and what her father asks her to do, she collapses to the floor singing, “Father, have pity,” in the most, well, pitiful sound you could possibly hear.
As for the final act, when the woman scorned is a princess of Egypt, you are doomed, pal.
But, as it turns out, it’s not as bad as you might think.