Verdi: Aida ****
The Royal Opera, 10th April 2011
When David McVicar’s production of Aida premièred at Covent Garden last spring, Antony Lias concluded, “All the Royal Opera now needs to do is find us an Aida worthy of singing on that stage and in that production.” Step forward Latonia Moore. Singing the first of her three Aidas at Covent Garden to conclude the run at this first revival, she was the undoubted highlight of a generally successful evening. McVicar’s staging remains controversial, arguably for all the right reasons, the focus being very much on sacrifice, both personal and religious, eschewing much of the pomp and paraphernalia of traditional productions that can detract from the essential dramatic conflict between the main characters.
There has been a succession of cast changes, both planned and unscheduled, during this revival. Micaela Carosi withdrew from the title role following the dress rehearsal, to be replaced by Liudmyla Monastyrska, whilst Dongwon Shin is the third Radamès, Anna Smirnova the third Amneris, with Brindley Sherratt promoted (vocally, at least) from King to Ramfis. Michael Volle remains, steadfastly, as Amonasro.
McVicar’s production is several leagues away from the banks of the Nile. There are no elephants here, palm trees or pyramids or hieroglyph-festooned temples. Sets such as the Met’s epic would be ridiculously expensive to make now if there’s to be any realism to them. Jean-Marc Puissant’s sets are largely gloomy, a revolving wall reminiscent of McVicar’s Rigoletto. ENO went for over-the-top Egyptian kitsch, which was sort of fun but the high camp costumes by Zandra Rhodes overshadowed the story. Then there was Graham Vick’s Bregenz production, featuring a blue, star-spangled Statue of Liberty, an allegory for broken America. Zeffirelli’s at La Scala was full of old-style sumptuous grandeur, but his small-scale effort for Busseto was most involving, casting aside much of the pomp as McVicar has done here, albeit whilst retaining the Egyptian iconography.
I suspect that McVicar wouldn’t have wanted all the Egyptian paraphernalia in any case. His setting is rather nondescript, futuristic in some ways, especially in Moritz Junge’s costumes of eastern influence, with much focus on the importance of tribal ritual and sacrifice, which can get rather lost in the traditional trappings. Essentially, aside from two big crowd scenes, Aida is a chamber opera, and the only pyramid that matters is based on the central love triangle featuring the main protagonists. McVicar’s staging doesn’t always allow him to concentrate on them – the ballets don’t always work, especially the Carry on Cleo shenanigans in Act II Scene i. The Grand March and ballet aren’t about bringing back the spoils from Ethiopia, but depicting the battle in martial arts style sword display, but the conclusion of the chorus, with Radamès staggering home dragging the enemy flag, is striking and gives an idea of the heavy costs involved. Whilst I didn’t miss the excesses of the Triumphal Scene, I did mourn the loss of any sense of nature or balmy night for the Nile Scene, even if it were a single palm tree.
I didn’t attend earlier performances in this run, so missed hearing Fabio Luisi’s conducting, which has garnered praise elsewhere. Luisi is one of the better Verdi conductors around today. I heard another, the Royal Opera’s own Antonio Pappano, conducting the original Sinfonia from Aida (not the Preludio with which Verdi swiftly replaced it) with his Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Basingstoke a few weeks ago. I wondered at the time whether he shouldn’t be directing proceedings in the pit at Covent Garden instead. As it turns out, Luisi was also replaced midway through the run, required at the Met for Das Rheingold, so Daniele Rustoni stepped in earlier than planned to conduct the remaining performances. Rustoni was an Associate Conductor in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme a few years ago and has clearly absorbed a lot from working at close quarters to Pappano. He conducted a performance brimming with tension; his pacing was nigh on perfect, the big crowd scenes were especially punchy. I liked the crashing orchestral accelerandos to conclude some scenes. Once or twice he seemed to be pushing Latonia Moore faster than she may have desired in “Ritorna vincitor!” and Shin parted ways with his conductor temporarily towards the end of the Nile Scene, but otherwise all was well in the pit. There were lovely flute details brought to the fore in “Celeste Aida” and the opening to the Act III evoked the perfumed atmosphere of the Nile by night missing from the staging. The off-stage trumpets in the Triumphal Scene in Act II, situated in Balcony Boxes, were tremendous in their articulation and attack.
Latonia Moore gave a staggeringly good performance as Aida, better than any I’ve heard at Covent Garden in 20 years. There’s something of Freni in her upper register, although her lyric spinto soprano is a good deal stronger, allowing her to cut through the ensembles like a knife through butter, but with a velvety chest voice. Physically towered over by Amneris, she immediately conveyed vulnerability. Pure voiced, her soprano has a golden quality and is just as convincing when singing quietly in alt, with no harshness. “O patria mia” was beautifully judged, her seamless legato a joy to the ear. Dramatically, she was also the most engaging performer, the Nile Scene with Michael Volle’s Amonasro the pivotal highlight of the evening. I trust that the Royal Opera’s casting department have already signed her up for future engagements – Amelia in Ballo, perhaps?
Anna Smirnova was making her House debut as Amneris. I imagine she’s been taking notes from Olga Borodina, as there’s an imperious Russian nature about her princess and plush chest notes which suggest a vocal and dramatic similarity. When Amneris commands “Ritorna vincitor!”, you daren’t imagine Radamès’ fate should he return with anything less than a thumping victory! Smirnova doesn’t thrill in the Judgement Scene as others have done before her, her upper register not cutting across the orchestral texture easily, but this could be to do with her restrained performance. By this point, Cossotto or Baltsa would have been chewing the scenery; the metallic revolving wall Smirnova was faced with looked distinctly unappetising. You did believe her regret, however, and her final prayer to Isis for peace was poignantly delivered.
Dongwon Shin is an honest tenor and made a decent fist of Radamès, even if there was little to actually excite. His approach is a bit ‘can belto’; “Celeste Aida” was on the stentorian side, with an especially fortissimo final note. He was better in duet, more responsive both to the text and his fellow singers, but subtlety really isn’t his watchword. Dressed in Samurai styled costume, the Korean tenor stomped and ran around a bit, but the character of Radamès never acquired anything beyond the two-dimensional. Michael Volle’s is not a natural Verdi voice, but he communicated the drama supremely well with powerful declamation, his firm baritone excelling in the Nile Scene with Moore and he has physical presence enough to look as if he could swot Radames away like a fly.
Brindley Sherratt was his usual sonorous self as Ramfis, although he was given little to do beyond looking imposing and delivering a few stock gestures. His performance in Act I Scene 2 is somewhat overshadowed by the extra-musical drama of the priestesses and the human sacrifices – a scene reminiscent of an abattoir. Lukas Jakobski was excellent as the King; blind, his tall thin physique made him look skeletal, ready for mummification perhaps, draped in white. He was led uncertainly about the stage, left hand quivering with palsy – shades of the Grand Inquisitor in Hytner’s Don Carlos production. He reined in his full bass somewhat, giving it a blanched quality; a monarch not long for this world. A word of praise is due for the Royal Opera Chorus, who provided splendidly focussed singing throughout the evening, especially red-blooded in “Su! del Nilo sacro lido” and “Gloria all’Egitto, ad Iside”.
Whether McVicar’s Aida returns in future seasons, who knows, but a return for Latonia Moore’s Aida is a must.
This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.