I love it when opera houses take risks, and make me see a familiar opera in a new light. English National Opera reliably provide surprises, make leaps of faith, and sometimes the result is spectacular — their rendition of Tristan and Isolde with set designs by Anish Kapoor was one of the most memorable productions I’ve ever seen. But sometimes they miss the mark. Their current production of Verdi’s Aida is, sadly, one such occasion. An utterly spellbinding performance from Latonia Moore in the title role was not quite enough to salvage the production’s overall incoherence and staticism.
Aida is an opera of two halves. On the one hand, it relies above all on spectacle — set in Egypt, it is theatrical in the most flamboyant sense. Verdi included dances and a lengthy ‘triumphal march’ which have provided a challenge for designers and choreographers since the opera’s premiere in 1871 (ENO’s 2007 production, for example, included a painted-silk evocation of an elephant for the march scene).
On the other hand, all this grandeur serves to embellish what is essentially a simple melodramatic love triangle between Radames, the leader of the Egyptian army, Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter, and Aida, the Ethiopian princess captured into slavery. Despite being from opposing countries, Radames and Aida fall desperately in love, and the opera’s plot revolves around Amneris’s attempts to win Radames’s heart and quash the blossoming romance between himself and Aida. To be convincing, the production needs to balance both halves, bringing both emotional depth and visual extravagance, and with either missing (or both, as was the case here) the whole collapses.
The third act duet between Latonia Moore (Aida) and Musa Ngqungwana (Amonasro) was the highlight of the entire show, the brilliance of their performance adeptly illuminating what the rest of the production lacked. For a start, the scene was superbly acted — the singers inhabited their characters emotionally, bringing nuance and subtlety to their roles. They looked at each other, reached out to touch one another, and used the whole of the stage. This was a stark contrast to the rest of the production; I struggle to recall any production where I’ve seen singers ‘park and bark’ with such consistency as here. In the opening trio, where Amneris (Michelle DeYoung) declares her love and Radames (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and Aida try desperately to conceal their emotions from her, DeYoung and Hughes Jones stood at opposite ends of the stage resolutely sung straight to the audience. I was surprised to read in the programme that director Phelim McDermott focused the rehearsal process on movement, as the lack of on-stage motion was so determined that I assumed it must have been a directorial imperative. In the final duet when Moore reveals to her lover that she has decided to share his death sentence, she got about as much response as if she’d asked if he fancied a cup of tea. Inexplicably, Hughes Jones stood entirely still, arms by his sides, and sung to the wall behind Moore’s head. In this context, Ngqungwana and Moore’s performances (and the too-fleeting appearance of Eleanor Dennis as the High Priestess) provided welcome relief, finally giving the audience a chance to invest in the tragic story.
Secondly, the third act was unhampered by sets and costumes that were distracting for all the wrong reasons. Kevin Pollard’s costumes flitted between time and place — Radames sported a 19th century military number, while DeYoung was put in increasingly wedding-cake-esque contraptions that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1960s futurist film. (Besides anything else, one costume was so restrictive that it meant she required assistance to alight from the steps on the stage — I can only imagine how inhibitive this must be when trying to both sing and act.) I assume the intention was to convey that there is a universal message in the story of Aida, that has no respect for temporal or geographical boundaries, but the effect was that of a slightly bemusing chaos from which no coherent message emerged. The same applied to the triumphal march. The creative team made the bold decision to turn the march on its head, and have the trumpeters herald in the coffins of Egypt’s fallen soldiers. In principle I like this idea very much, bringing forward the human cost behind the celebratory pomp and circumstance. And the American-style military presentation took on an unexpected resonance against the political furore surrounding Donald Trump’s claims about previous presidents and their conduct towards bereaved military families. But while the idea was laudable, the execution was lamentable. The celebratory scene lasts somewhere between nine and ten minutes, but only about five seemed to have been choreographed. In the remaining three or four minutes, the cast shuffled about looking like awkward family members at a funeral rather than characters in an opera. This was especially bizarre given that dancers had made appearances previously, using silk effects under Basil Twist’s direction. It is a mystery why they were not employed here, or indeed why a more intricate lighting design was not used, given that Bruno Poet’s lighting provided some of the most striking visual effects elsewhere.
Had this been a sound recording, it would have been practically flawless. If any complaint is going to be made about the sound, it would have to be the translation — phrases like ‘You’re so lovely’ in the final duet seemed less Verdi and more Scouting for Girls. Nonetheless, the orchestra sparkled under Keri-Lynn Wilson’s exceptional leadership, and sonically there wasn’t a single weak link amongst the cast. Matthew Best and Brindley Sherratt were commanding as the Pharaoh and Ramfis respectively, and I would run out of words to enthuse about Moore’s performance as Aida. Theatrically, however, this production was frustrating. ENO’s financial troubles are no secret and this was not a production to maintain audiences, as demonstrated by the half-empty auditorium. I love ENO and what it stands for, and desperately want it to succeed. London surely needs an opera house that can provide a more experimental theatrical vision alongside the traditionally more conservative Royal Opera House. But this production seemed to make the same mistake as the ROH’s Anna Nicole, and assume that brightly-coloured costumes and some near-nudity makes a staging innovative. It doesn’t. Taking risks means reconceptualising the opera entirely, and coming up with new ways to showcase the cast rather than detract from them. The musicians were the stars of this show — it is a shame they were not allowed to shine.
‘Aida’ is running at the English National Opera until the 2nd December.