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Verdi, Aida : (New production) Soloists, chorus and orchestra of The Royal Opera. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. 27.4.2010 (JPr)

David McVicar -  Director
Jean-Marc Puissant - Set designs
Moritz Junge - Costumes

Production Picture © Bill Cooper

I began a review of a live transmission of Aida from The Met last October, by writing ‘This was ‘Grand Opera’ at its grandest and one thing is for sure; Covent Garden’s new staging of Verdi’s opera will not be anything like this when it opens next April.’

Spring is upon us now bringing this much-anticipated new production by David McVicar and there was nothing at all ‘Grand’ about it, just as I predicted. The conductor Nicola Luisotti, spoke recently in an interview about how this opera ‘isn’t about elephants and camels and spectacle, although many people think it is. Nearly all scenes are with two or three people – Aida and Radames, Amonasro and Aida, Amneris and Radames ... The power struggles of Church and State are very strong. We see that in the world today … The end of the opera is decided by the priests not by the King. It’s about today as much as it’s about Ancient Egypt.’ Actually, there was not really much of ‘today’ in this staging that I could discern. Aida’s very own ‘elephant in the room’ – that over-used phrase in current political debates – is that there are so many Egyptian references in the libretto that it is difficult not to hope for a hint of Sphinx, for some hieroglyphs or even to long for Zandra Rhodes’s actual turquoise elephant from English National Opera’s recent production. I enjoyed that more - both scenically and even more crucially, musically – than this production.

Apart from employing a few panels now and again, there are basically only two elements to Jean-Marc Puissant’s set; a large grey wall with suggestions of of scaffolding and strip lighting and a cut-out of a step pyramid on the floor. The ‘wall’ can be revolved to allow the entry of individuals or processions forward onto the stage and the ‘floor stencil’ is raised to suggest Aida and Radames’s entombment in Act IV. There is an oppressive mien of pagan barbarianism in the production, yet whether this was meant to be ancient or post-apocalyptic, I wasn’t sure. Moritz Junge’s costumes were an ethnic hotchpotch of almost every tribal culture imaginable – except for Ancient Egypt of course. There appeared to be Incas, Aztecs, Assyrians, Afghans and Samurais, amongst others, dotted about on stage.

The theocracy appeared to be driven by enslavement, blood sacrifice and sex. A chained figure is shown at the beginning who seems to return at the end of the opera as Aida’s vision of the ‘angel of death’. Young men are strung up and butchered by bare-breasted dancers in order to bloody Radames and ready him to lead his troops to war. When he returns ‘triumphant’ the King greets him below a canopy of mutilated cadavers. Lots of David McVicar’s signature bare-flesh is shown on stage but almost all of Fin Walker’s choreography - which made even the Act II staging of the Karma Sutra boring rather than erotic and also presented the ‘triumphal march’ as a coma-inducing display of martial arts - needs jettisoning (or re-imagining) when this production is revived. The general air of decadence and debauchery is abetted by muted costume colours and Jennifer Tipton’s gloomy lighting.

Put simply, Aida is about the clash between the individual Radames and a despotic state with the added factor that he is torn between loyalty to his country and his love for the daughter of the King of Ethiopia, Egypt’s mortal enemy. It can obviously survive McVicar’s blood-soaked revisionism but even then, it still  works best only  for the first two Acts when there are large numbers of priests, soldiers, slaves and prisoners on stage. The more intimate moments in Acts III and IV involving Amneris, Aida, Radames and Amonasro in various combinations, are lost on a largely open stage.

More importantly, what happened during the many weeks of rehearsal that the singers apparently underwent is a mystery,  because there is not a hint of characterisation from the main principals who mostly give us routine scenery-chewing ‘stand and deliver’ operatic performances. Marcelo Álvarez makes his role debut as Radames in the costume of a Japanese warrior with a samurai sword. Micaela Carosi, as Aida, seems more a genuine princess than a slave, and Marianne Cornetti is given a cumbersome head-dress as Amneris. None of them seem destined for acting honours in the near future.

Álvarez is a singer whom I have admired greatly in the past but he began with a nervy and choppily phrased ‘Celeste Aida’ that had little elegance or lyricism. Much of the rest of his performance was in the same vein and it was only with his final lines of ‘farewell’ in the tomb that his refined mezza voce reminded me of what an accomplished singer he can be. Carosi’s occasionally sharp Aida flunked all her big moments despite some solid top notes. Sounding at times like a dramatic mezzo she seemed to have no volume control whatsoever with hardly anything being sung below an unrelenting fortissimo: I can’t recall a real pianissimo – apart maybe from the last ‘pietà’ in Act II. Cornetti certainly has the lung power for Amneris and particularly for her Act IV confrontation with Radames. It is clear however that her 250 plus appearances in this role have taken their toll on her voice which probably does not now have the steadiness it once had. I think I was impressed more than most with Marco Vratogna's impassioned Amonasro, whilst the bass sonority of Giacomo Prestia and Robert Lloyd gave power and dignity to Ramfis and the King (shown by McVicar as very enfeebled).

Incredibly, the principals where enthusiastically acclaimed by the audience which included The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. To my mind, the (only) true vocal stars of the evening were the augmented chorus with their stentorian outbursts. The orchestra was excellent too, but however well Nicola Luisotti’s conducting accompanied his singers, he often seemed over-concerned to race on from one ‘big moment’ to the next. There was little of the subtlety and true grandeur that Verdi intended in the music and as a result I was left strangely unmoved by what arguably is Verdi’s most affecting score. Perhaps that was the real ‘elephant in the room’.

Jim Pritchard


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