Scandalizing Orientalism: The Aida Productions by Hans Neuenfels (1981) and Peter Konwitschny (1994)
In Hans Neuenfels’ 1981 production of Aida in Frankfurt, the curtain rose at the beginning of the second act to reveal a three-storey structure of theatre boxes that filled almost the entire length and height of the stage. Seated in these boxes was the chorus, dressed as a belle époque audience reminiscent of that of the first European Aida production at the Scala in Milan in February 1872. The structure stood right behind the curtain so that the Frankfurt audience was confronted with a nineteenth-century version of itself. What they saw seemed to please them. They applauded their counterpart, which later returned the compliment by waving good-bye.
After the chorus had announced the victory of Radames and the Egyptians over the Ethiopians, the structure gradually receded to the back of the stage, creating a space for the triumphal scene to unfold. Radames sat facing the audience at a table centre-stage. With him were Amneris and Aida, a cleaning-bucket by her side. The young victors entered cheering. Their gestures partly resembled those of the athletes in Leni Riefenstahl’s film on the 1936 Olympic Games,1 but also those of the disciples of Monte Verità and of the carnival guards in nearby Mainz or Cologne. Then the human trophies – the ‘savage’ Ethiopians, dressed in loincloths – were driven onto the stage in packs, chased around in a circle by a female ring-master wielding a giant whip. The association with a circus or variety-show suggests itself here because...
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