Stark 'Aida' has British raving mad

Special to The Times

Nobody expected elephants. But London opera audiences making their first acquaintance with the work of Robert Wilson certainly expected something more than the director delivered with the cool, calm, ultra-minimalist staging of "Aida" that opened at Covent Garden last weekend. Which is why they booed the first night. And why their boos were echoed by some of the most vitriolic reviews in the British press for a long while.

"A rampant exercise in directorial egomania," thundered the Daily Telegraph, attacking the production's "vacuous chic" and "creepily fascistic" aesthetic; it reminded the writer of "nothing so much as a Nuremberg rally." "If what I have just witnessed represented the way things are going," he continued, warming to his theme, "then opera will be dead in fifty years."

The Times was marginally more balanced, finding "good reasons for the Royal Opera to be importing this production [it originated in Brussels last year] and good reasons for hating it." But the paper ultimately dismissed it all as "a fashion show with a Verdi soundtrack."

The Guardian despaired that Wilson treats his characters like dolls "swimming in treacle," rendering them devoid of expressivity or any suggestion of intimacy: "He just doesn't do personal relationships in his shows."

Reading all this, you'd probably assume that Wilson's late arrival on the London opera scene (a rare gap in his otherwise worldwide CV) has been a flop. But no. The show is sold out; would-be ticket buyers are begging for returns. The situation could well be duplicated when Wilson's "Madame Butterfly" comes to Los Angeles Opera in February.

Now 61, the director is a legendary figure, arguably the leading international stage director of his generation. But he's controversial. And unlike so many of his colleagues in the business of opera, he courts controversy not by relocating "Don Giovanni" to a garbage dump beside a highway or staging Verdi with the chorus sitting, trousers down, in lavatory cubicles (two recent highlights of the London opera calendar) but, on the contrary, by doing nothing. Or so it seems to his critics.

Wilson productions take place on near-empty stages, bathed in deep-dye lighting colors, and with characters executing slow, enigmatic ritual gestures. Swimming, as the Guardian said, in treacle. The results can look beautiful but empty, as if cast with Stepford wives. And for many spectators, the effect is the same with every show: It might be "Butterfly" in Paris, "Parsifal" in Houston or one of his famous 1970s collaborations with composer Philip Glass, such as "Einstein on the Beach." That's consistency if you're a fan but a deadening, one-track uniformity if you're a detractor.

Influenced by Asian staging, and especially by the slow-moving, highly stylized Noh plays of the Japanese, this is a theater genre where image and gesture take precedence over text. And Wilson's apparent disinterest in text -- still less its meaning -- is what many regard as his greatest crime.

He has said that what he makes is "formal" theater, not "interpretive." He deals in luminous ambiguity. In contrast to conventionally busy opera productions -- which he finds grotesque -- a Wilson show sets up, in his words, a necessary "distance for reflection." Which is not what opera-goers reared on highly charged emotional excess and semaphore-style passion think they've paid to see.

So aiming to cool down the emotions to a Buddhist calm may not be such a good idea, and Wilson's work can give the impression of having that aim. With its puppet-characters (their arms stretched out as though they're being moved by strings) and lack of obvious emotional exchange (nobody touches, arias are sung straight to the audience), this "Aida" can suggest a drug-dazed 1960s happening.

Another objection to the staging is its anonymity. Dressed in a timeless, vaguely Eastern, haute-couture frock, with her puppet-gestures framed against a dark-washed neutral background, is this really Aida? Or Lucia di Lammermoor? Or Tosca? It's difficult to know without the music. Is the comparably attired and gesturing tenor really Radames? To many, he might as well be Peter Grimes. Otello. Don Ottavio.

That said, not everyone has subscribed to the critical consensus that Wilson's work is devoid of emotion. To some, this "Aida" is proof that formality can intensify feeling by containing it. According to the Scotsman: "Verdi's stiff, undeveloped characters became more alive by their very restraint."

Whatever Londoners make of Wilson, he's just about everywhere they look these days. Two months ago, his multimedia gospel "The Temptation of St. Anthony" opened the autumn season at the Sadlers Wells theater. And his exhibition/installation of Armani clothes, originally mounted for New York's Guggenheim, is currently showing at the Royal Academy of Art (amid fervent debate as to whether fashion can be art).

For the opera critics, though, there won't be a change of heart. They have declared war on Wilson and damned his venture into Verdian Egyptology as the worst pyramid selling on record. That "Aida" is the hottest ticket to be had here only shows how much the British love a fight.

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