When Fence first performed at Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House in 1871, superstar conductor Giuseppe Verdi was partially satisfied.
Although he was pleased with the production’s enthusiastic reception, he was reportedly dismayed that the audience was limited to the elite and ruling class.
For this reason, he considered the performance at La Scala in Italy the following year to be a “real” premiere.
Verdi’s displeasure, perhaps a little misguided when the audience commissioned the work, is nevertheless part of a long tradition of opera, where the second performance is often the litmus test of its quality.
That’s what happened in Madrid on Tuesday, when the Spanish city’s prestigious opera house, Teatro Real, hosted a follow-up performance Fence after the high-profile premiere the night before.
“The first act doesn’t have the usual audience, so that adds to the stress,” says Teatro Real’s Principal Guest Conductor Nicola Luisotti.
“But the second performance is when the audience arrives. They are the ones who have waited a long time to return to the opera house to see the production.
“While of course the music is beautiful and legendary, it still takes a lot of hard work to make sure everyone appreciates it the way it should be.”
Judging by the standing ovation from the full audience, the new version fence, as a co-production of the Abu Dhabi festival, is on the way to success.
With 20 performances planned for the venue until November 14, it’s a lush and faithful staging of the tragedy.
Set in war-torn ancient Egypt, Fence follows the doomed love triangle of a nominally enslaved Ethiopian princess, Egyptian army commander Radames, and Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris.
Argentinian director and costume designer Hugo de Ana conjures the majesty and luxury of the Egyptian royal court with opulent and commanding set designs that are grand yet sophisticated.
This is particularly exemplified by the wardrobe of the ruling class, with startling silk outfits in shades of turquoise, sky blue and purple.
It’s an elegance that matches Russian soprano Anna Netrebko’s bravura performance as Aidan.
Fully invested in an emotionally taxing role, Netbreko brings out the vulnerability and sensuality of one of opera’s greatest and most tragic heroines.
Although it can be argued that the use of three-dimensional projections to increase the depth of the stage is not necessary, Fence is elegant comfort food for those who like their operas traditional and full of grandeur.
A nod to ancient Egypt
Although innovation in opera is a relative concept, Luisotti says that the new staging of the masterpiece still has to bring something new to the table.
“Sometimes it’s not about taking an opera and changing everything. Sometimes it’s also about what you decide to focus on and adding that new light to a different part of the score,” he says.
“So to achieve that as a composer, you have to move away from respecting the score and instead love it so much that you have to add a new perspective to it.”
Luisotti’s contribution Fence is both subtle and effective.
As a musical nod to the region, the Italian worked with the cast, including Netrebko, to add quartertones to his vocals — a musical form characteristic of ancient and modern Middle Eastern music.
“And it’s hard to do because the Western Musical System is semitone – and Verdi’s sophisticated score is a product of the 19th century.
“But it was good to try this as a way to pay tribute to a great civilization like Egypt.”
The value of joint productions
The Abu Dhabi festival has a growing list of international co-productions.
This includes Mahler’s powerful symphony Resurrection Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in France in July and a dance performance De Scheherazade and Yo, Carmen with Spanish flamenco dancer Maria Pages.
Scroll through the gallery below to view images from “De Scheherazade a Yo, Carmen”
After the critically acclaimed opening performances in Barcelona in May, the latter production will go on a two-year world tour to Europe and South America.
“The value of partnerships is their ability to provide opportunities to exchange ideas and foster creativity,” says Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, the festival’s artistic director and founder of its governing body, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.
“It’s not about creating art for its own sake. It’s about partnerships with shared visions, goals and values, respect and understanding to create something with a strong impact.
When it’s about FenceAlkhamis-Kanoo describes the production as “monumental and symbolic” of Teatro Real and Abu Dhabi Festival’s approach to cultural programming.
As the opera industry recovers from the disruption caused by the pandemic, promoting such ambitious projects is essential to support artists and keep the genre vital to a new generation of audiences.
“The most rewarding thing is to know that we have influenced and brought about changes with our contribution to the international creative arena,” he says.
“Shaping the future of the next generation through our productions and commissions and the joy I see in the eyes of everyone involved when the work comes together is more valuable to me than the financial benefit of co-production.”
Abu Dhabi center stage as a “city of music”
Fence continues the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation’s enduring relationship with Spain.
As part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, Spanish opera titans Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo played in the UAE in 2007 and 2013.
Such cultural contributions have led Alkhamis-Kanoo to become the first Arab person to receive an honorary medal from Spain’s prestigious Reina Sofia Conservatory of Music in May, the highest accolade beyond the cultural recognition, Friend of Spain. The Spanish government earlier this month for promoting cultural dialogue between the two countries.
“Spain is unique in that it celebrates its Arab history and with this experience it is such a joy to bring our wonderful cultures together,” she says.
“With Spain, we share the values of innovation, creation and respect, and its warm, welcoming culture makes it open to new partnerships and collaborations.
Alkhamis-Kanoo says that with the festival’s rolling international calendar of events and the return to full capacity performances, the capital fulfills its designation as a UNESCO City of Music.
“It reflects our determined efforts to create rich cultural experiences both at home and abroad,” he says.
“We are proud to be a part of helping to grow this cultural ecosystem in our beloved city.”
“Aida” runs at the Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain through November 14. More information is available at www.teatroreal.es
Scroll through the gallery below to view images of the property “The Resurrection of Mahler”
Updated: 27/10/2022 at 14:24