Digging up Verdi’s Aida at the Albert Hall

Verdi: Aida ****

Royal Albert Hall, 3rd March 2012 (mat)

An ‘arena opera’ virgin, I blithely made a prediction on my leisurely amble to the Royal Albert Hall for the latest Raymond Gubbay ‘spectacular’ featuring Verdi’s Aida: it would feature a cast of thousands and would focus on the great choral scenes in blockbusting fashion. Wrong on both counts. For all the grandeur of the Triumphal Scene on which much of the opera’s reputation rests in the eyes of the wider public, Aida is – for much of its duration – almost chamber opera; scenes between one or two characters in which the real drama plays out. Playing in the round of the Royal Albert Hall’s Arena, the limited size of the stage actually brought far more of the audience much closer to the action than is usual in an opera house. While the grand public scenes were a tad disappointing, the intimacy of the Nile Scene was a real highlight.

In terms of the production, director Stephen Medcalf and set designer Isabella Bywater have created something far finer than any other London production of Aida I’ve witnessed. Yes, that’s a pretty low starting point following a succession of disappointing stagings at Covent Garden (Elijah Moshinsky’s low budget, low interest one from 1994, Robert Wilson’s bizarre semaphore of 2003 and the 2010 David McVicar effort, with a non-descript ‘anywhere but Egypt’ setting) against the cartoon kitsch of the Zandra Rhodes designed one at English National Opera. However, the ‘concept’ behind this one is simple and gloriously effective.

One of the problems of setting an opera ‘in the round’ is the necessity of avoiding sets involving any height for fear of obscuring sightlines. As the entire audience looks down onto the stage, Bywater sets it on an archaeological dig at the time of the opera’s composition; Aida had its debut in the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo in 1871, the same year the Royal Albert Hall was opened, while in 1873 writer and artist Amelia Edwards took a boat trip through Egypt, recorded in her tome A thousand miles up the Nile which sparked a lifelong interest in Egyptology and included lecturing on the subject in South Kensington. Edwards is one of several mute additions to the cast already in action as one enters the auditorium. An archaeological dig is taking place – there are several pits leading to the basement area – and Amelia Edwards (Charlotte Medcalf) sketches the scene as the orchestral prelude begins, her sketches projected onto giant video screening covering the Albert Hall organ. Those sketches transform into a full colour backdrop of the pyramids (we’ll draw a veil over the fact that the opera is set much further south in Thebes). The idea is that the archaeologists have somehow disturbed the spirits of Aida and Radamès and she ‘imagines’ their story acted out in front of her. For the most part, she is present on stage, but is largely unobtrusive.

Indra Thomas (Aida) and Tiziana Carraro (Amneris)
© Alastair Muir

The action and acting is effectively directed and, for the most part, conventional. Medcalf comes up with the novel idea of Ramfis strangling Aida at the conclusion of the Judgement Scene. Although this distracts from a stonking finale as Tiziana Carraro’s Amneris curses the priests (negating any possibility of well deserved applause), it sets up a tomb scene where Radamès spies Aida’s ghost and the two are petrified as statues, seated side by side. Bywater could have projected the programme photograph here which clearly sparked this directorial idea. Andrew Bridge’s lighting in this final scene effectively conveyed the restricted space of the tomb.

Choreography by Sarah Fahie was as well handled as can be expected in this space. The girlish antics of Amneris’ ladies in Act II Scene i were nicely done, the playful aspect not something you often seen portrayed. However, the martial arts-style Triumphal Scene, especially the Grand March, failed to live up to the Cecil B de Mille spectacular billing. Costumes (Bywater) are broadly traditional, with acres of white, the exception being Aida’s silky turquoise. I did wonder why Aida attached what looked like a satellite dish to Amneris’ headgear early on, but that was the single oddity.

Three casts are rotated in this run of performances. Indra Thomas was an excellent, affecting Aida, with a lovely smoky tone in her lower register. She suffered one or two difficulties in ‘O patria mia’, towards the climactic high C of “più” and the final A, where her soprano sounded thin and exposed at the top. Elsewhere, she was extremely fine, if not in Latonia Moore’s class last season at Covent Garden. “Ritorna vincitor” was well negotiated and she acted the vulnerable girl opposite an imperious Amneris well. She’s sung Liù at the Met and she would be welcome at Covent Garden.

Less distinguished as Radamès was Marc Heller, vocally and dramatically unsubtle. His acting is largely by semaphore, although in fairness it’s a style still seen in many of the world’s opera houses. His heroic tenor sounded quite tight at the top and his stentorian delivery didn’t help. He was at his best in the opera’s affecting final scene. Carraro was very much the pro as the Egyptian princess Amneris – truly convincing, despite her voice being divided into two distinct registers, with a chasm betwixt them. She’s sung Amneris around the arenas and Italian festivals and clearly knows the role inside out.

The best singing came from David Kempster as Amonasro, the Ethiopian king, caged for the Nile encounter with his daughter, which I initially felt hampered the scene’s effectiveness, but the fact that father and daughter were just out of reach of each other (she being shackled) made their duet more poignant. All of this beneath video projection of the rippling Nile just after sunset made for an atmospheric scene of tremendous beauty (and how often is the Nile actually indicated in productions today?). Kempster’s singing was both virile and well phrased, making the most of Amonasro’s limited role before failing to escape the guards at the end of the Nile Scene. Stanislav Shvets was a vengeful, study Ramfis, a quality Daniel Lewis Williams’ King rather lacked. The choral singing was effective, especially from the ladies, who had a number of sprints from the Gallery down to the main stage. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted in this performance by Robin Newton, was on fine form, whipping up some pageantry in the closing moments of Act II.

The undoubted problem of opera in the Albert Hall, especially in the Arena, is that amplification is required. The ‘audio enhancement’ by Bobby Aitken takes a few moments to adjust to, especially when singers produce the same volume of sound when they turn their back to you, but on the whole it was sensitively done, although purists will continue to have doubts.

This production – and experience – far exceeded my expectations. I’m only sorry I cannot see the other casts, particularly Claire Rutter as Aida, although I gather next Friday’s performance, in which she features, is being broadcast live by SkyArts. Ah, so that’s what Amneris’ satellite dish was for…

This review originally appeared on Opera Britannia.

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