The cast of Verdi’s Aida on stage at the Teatro Carlo Felice

Freeing Aida

“Celeste Aida, forma divina…”

Long understood to be one of Verdi’s masterpieces, Aida is a classic tale of love and betrayal, set in spectacular circumstances. Aida, an Ethiopian princess held captive in Egypt, is in love with a general in the Egyptian army. When he is called upon to lead a war between Egypt and Ethiopia, Aida has to decide where her love lies – her country and family or her beloved General Radamès. It’s a powerful story and, when performed to its fullest, is the perfect example of the Grand Opera – monumental and orchestral.

It has been a staple of Italian opera since its first performance at La Scala in 1872 (Verdi himself does not count the performance in Cairo as the opera’s premiere, as the general public were not invited) and has since been performed all over the world to audiences rapt by its extravagance, drama and the passion of emotional conflict. It comprises of four acts, the most famous of which sees Radamès return victorious to Egypt, having beaten the armies of Aida’s father. A cast of hundreds can (and has) filled, the stage – alongside animals, dancers and trumpeters – accompanied by Verdi’s famous Triumphal March.

An epic tale, however, requires an epic amount of work to bring to the audience. In particular, the set design for Aida is detailed and lavish, heavy with replica Old Kingdom architecture, monuments and columns. The set build and daily complexities of transitioning with each act change are also costly and time consuming, with wear and tear an ongoing challenge. It's a formula which, despite being the expectation of operagoers, is being challenged by a new wave of directors, who look to technology to bring opera to life. “Aida has multiple, constantly changing exotic settings,” explains Guiseppe Acquaviva, Artistic Director of Genoa’s iconic Teatro Carlo Felice. “So, when I was offered the chance to use video scenography, I immediately agreed.”

Projected images of faces wearing Egyptian make-up on the stage of the Teatro Carlo Felice
The projections allow for new, creative interpretations of the set.

The opera house, Teatro Carlo Felice has stood in the Passo Montale Eugenio for nearly two hundred years but was nearly destroyed by bombing during World War II. It has since undergone full restoration to become a fitting modern venue for such bold experimentations. It is used for many different types of performance, from opera to ballet and orchestras, so the 2500-seater venue needs to be as adaptable as possible for the changing seasons.

By using projected scenery, setting the stage is as simple as erecting the projection screens and preparing the lighting – a far cry from multiple elevator stages, huge built set manoeuvres and the health and safety implications of both. Overall, seven projectors are responsible for transforming the stage into the Old Kingdom: Five 7000-lumen Canon laser projectors for the rear screen and two 8000-lumen projectors take care of the front. All are synchronised by two media servers, linked to the theatre network.

But crucially, it works creatively, too. The projected set has what has been described as having a ‘surreal’ and ‘metaphysical’ quality to it, transporting the audience from locations and points in history seamlessly and magically. The pyramids, temples and palaces are rendered in exquisite 3D, with perfect depth and perspective. Yet there is somehow a lack of visual ‘intrusion’ and in experiencing a clearer stage the audience gains a new sense of intimacy from the performance. In the words of Monica Manganelli, Video Sceneographer, “we were finally able to experience the cinematographic language” and through it, the famous intensity of Aida is not just maintained by the moving image, but it is freed.

Written by Silvia Volpe

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