Among grand operas, there is none grander than Verdi’s Aida, first performed in Cairo in 1871. Egyptian spectacle is written into the stage directions with panoramic vistas of Theban temples and triumphal arches, but inside this epic an intimate love story is struggling to get out.
It is rare for both halves of the opera to be staged with equal success. This new production by Robert Carsen offers a present-day political drama set in some unnamed totalitarian state, ground that has been exhaustively trodden in recent years by other directors. There is no spectacle at all and, given the dire financial situation, the Royal Opera’s accounts department will no doubt be patting him on the back.
Even the thought of visual exuberance is comprehensively stifled by setting almost the entire opera in a grey underground bunker. The absence of the ballets in the early scenes, where Verdi’s music calls for movement, also has a dampening effect (soldiers saluting or servants laying the table are no compensation).
Carsen does much better in the big triumph scene, which becomes a military parade of the kind we recognise from North Korea or some former Soviet states. Ranks of apparatchiks clap on cue, as at a communist party conference, and now there is dancing from soldiers showing off their fighting skills, a clever idea.
Thus far, though, the losses still outweigh the gains. Where the production hits its stride is in its relentless depiction of a society where one-party rule, enforced by the military, has smothered individual freedom. Telling performances from the central trio capture their despair, though it was surely going too far to have Aida and Radames entombed in a missile store. Imagine if Radames, a feted general, knew how to set one off. That would certainly be a different ending.
It is typical that Elena Stikhina’s Aida makes her opening aria not a vocal showpiece but a detailed insight into her emotional conflict. Although other sopranos have brought greater vocal resources to the role, she has both strength and delicacy, and does not fail at the challenging moments. Agnieszka Rehlis is similarly effective as Amneris, never strained, always guaranteed to deliver, without erasing memories of more grandly voiced mezzos.
More distinctive is the Radames of Francesco Meli, who has native Italian cut-and-thrust and makes the words tell. Softer vocal colours do not come to him easily, and he occasionally sounds as if he is pushing himself to the limit, but his high-tensile intensity compels attention. In his short scenes, Ludovic Tézier’s Amonasro is big of voice and personality. Soloman Howard’s tall Ramfis is a tower of vocal strength.
From the first, beautifully turned phrases in the strings, the orchestral playing is of the highest quality and Antonio Pappano paces the opera with surges of rousing urgency. Even more impressive is the chorus, breathtaking in the priests’ hushed chanting, glorious in the triumphal march.
How opera has changed. Fifty years ago, Aida was about great voices and a designer with unlimited pots of gold paint. Now, what we get is a political drama with contemporary relevance and choral and orchestral excellence.
To October 12, then returning in May 2023, roh.org.uk
Source: Financial Times