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Silken Spectacle of a Tragic Triangle: Aida

by on 4 October 2017


by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni

English National Opera at The London Coliseum until 2nd December

Review by Mark Aspen

Take the eternal triangle, set it during a war, add in passion and sacrifice for love, and you have the perfect recipe for the grand romance.  But when the setting is ancient Egypt, you can cook up a spectacle.  Such is Aida, the operatic epitome of romantic spectacle.  The appetite for spectacle has brought live horses and even elephants to early productions and has attracted filmmakers, notably Fracassi’s 1953 version with a lip-synced Sophia Loren.

English National Opera’s past-master in spectacle is Phelim McDermott, directing epic productions such as Phillip Glass’s operas Satyagraha and Akhnaten, the latter, also based in ancient Egypt, earning him an Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production.  So there was much expectation of innovative spectacle from ENO’s new production of Aida with McDermott again at the wheel.

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However, McDermott’s wonted spectacle is much subdued: the visual fireworks being more from the colour fountain box than the rockets and bangers box of Satyagraha.  The design, by ENO veteran Tom Pye, is based on an Egyptian hieroglyph, which we first see as light escaping from the swaged front curtain as it is slowly lifted; and on an ubiquitous obelisk.  Apart from these images, most of the design references are difficult to unravel, in particular Kevin Pollard’s flamboyant cleverly-crafted costumes: eclectic, anachronistic and with much emphasis of the outpourings of a turbo-charged millinery department.  In an early appearance of Princess Amneris, she wears a dress that resembles a giant merengue, and the Egyptian temple guards look like Star Wars’ Stormtroopers.

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The baffling extravagance of the design is redeemed by the interplay of large-scale silks, the work of the appropriately named Basil Twist, a “silk effects choreographer”, which give an ethereal feel and soften the angular architecture of the set.  Aerial silk is ubiquitous: in billowing swells, it comments on Radamès’ declaration of love of Aida which opens the opera; it forms zephyrs of incense smoke when Amneris is led to prayer; and, at its most fantastical, forms the streaming crimson gown of the High Priestess (Eleanor Dennis’ radiant soprano firing this role).  This is a fiery placenta bringing forth a brood of priest-ette attendants, fluidly multi-tasking as they tumble, march and dance with banners, poi, and silk streamers.   These, performed by the dozen strong female acrobats of contemporary circus-skills company Mimbre within the opera’s ballet sequences, were designed by movement choreographer Lina Johansson.

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The score of Aida is recognised as one of Verdi’s best, and conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson tackles it with emotional verve, bringing out all the nuances and all the story-telling potential from the music.  The prelude opens very quietly and the opera concludes quietly, but in between there are wonderful full-on moments, the concertato moment being after the famous Grand March when voices and music combine to celebrate the victory of the Egyptians over the Ethiopians.  The fanfare is with on-stage trumpets, an exciting opening.  In contrast, there are beautifully lyrical moments, some solo, such as the plaintive flute at the beginning of Act III.  Wilson interprets all in an easy but spirited style.

The fateful love triangle comprises Princess Amneris and the captive Aida, whom she holds in bondage, and the Egyptian military hero Radamès, with whom they are both in love.  However, the vicissitudes of war with neighbouring Ethiopia, of which Aida is a princess, make this an explosive situation, heightened by jealousy.

Making her ENO debut, American soprano Latonia Moore excels as Aida.  Whether in its impressive full power, or in the most delicate passages, the quality of her singing does not change, and my, how she can act!   Aida’s anguish is palpable in arias such as “How could I bear this cruel deadly weight” delightfully ornamented.  When the dissembling Amneris tricks Aida into admitting her love for Radamès, and threatens to destroy them both, Aida’s “Ye gods above, pity my cry”, delivered with full coloratura, is heart-rending.   Even when not singing, Moore’s Aida can speak of sadness, anger or joy.

Michelle DeYoung’s statuesque presence makes an imposing Amneris, as torn emotionally as Aida is, but deadly in her jealousy.  She looks much more regal in her golden sunburst costume, and later we see her in a white gown edged with blood-red.  Her voice holds great menace, delivered in her rounded mezzo-soprano.  However, its richness does sometimes seem to be at the expense of distorted vowels.  DeYoung’s acting comes into its own after the trial of Radamès when Amneris is permeated with guilt … but she also has a great line in curses.

Radamès only has eyes for Aida, and in this role Gwyn Hughes-Jones expresses Radamès’ love magnificently in his opening aria, “Heavenly Aida, fair as a vision”.  This piece is notorious in that Verdi throws the tenor in at the deep end and then asks for a pianissimo B flat to finish, but Hughes-Jones’ dynamic voice brings passionate to the aria with a skilful final diminuendo.  However, his body language did not have the passion of the words, and as the opera progresses, one does not feel the ardour of a man who would throw away all he had for love.

Radamès’ downfall starts when, amongst the spoils of war, a cage full of Ethiopian prisoners is triumphantly dragged in.   Amongst them, unknown to his captors, is Amonasro, the Ethiopian king and Aida’s father.  South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, making his UK debut, gave great energy to the part, his seething anger expressed in a rich resounding tone.

Aida is appalled when Amonasro suggests she uses pillow-talk find out Radamès’ plan of attack in the forthcoming incursion into Ethiopian territory.   Nevertheless, when planning their elopement, Radamès reveals his prepared ambush in the Gorges of Napata.  The trap is sprung and Radamès is smeared as a traitor, “My honour lost … every pleasure turned to ashes”.

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The Egyptian aristocracy is represented by Egyptian King attended by Ramfis, the Chief Priest.  Matthew Best, whose last major ENO role was as Tiresias in The Thebans, brings a fine bass voice to the noble King.  The bass register is also finely exhibited by Robert Winslade Anderson as Ramfis, hawkish in his regard for the enemy.  While perhaps not hard enough in his acting, Anderson’s voice cannot be faulted, honed in the ENO Chorus.

Indeed, as always, the ENO Chorus provides a faultless base for the company.  Aida shows off its versatility: from in Act I singing with monastic clarity, a gentle haunting sound, “Who from the void created earth, and sea and sky”, to the full-on victory chorus at the climax of Act II.  All clad in jet, they thunder into the stretta “Glory to Isis, goddess fair”.

At his trial for treason, Radamès offers no defence and is sentenced to death by immurement in sealed tomb.  Pye’s set peeks into the tomb as a cut-out in the earth of a funereal-black fore-drop.  But Aida has already secreted herself in Radamès tomb.  “Farewell, valley of sorrows” they sing.  Their final duets give a sense of finality that is piercing in its pain and at the same time both touching in its tenderness.

Another cut-out opens higher up, where we see Amneris, full of remorse, who softly offers the final word of the opera, “Pardon”.  And the love triangle becomes a tragedy of love.

Mark Aspen

October 2017

Photographs by Tristram Kenton, courtesy of English National Opera.
  1. e-mail elizabethwait permalink

    I enjoyed reading this very much, congratulations




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