OPERA NEWS - Aida
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In Review > International

Aida

LONDON
Opera Holland Park
6/24/15

Aida, one might think, ought to be one of the most straightforward (if expensive) of standard operas to produce — at least from a dramatic point of view. The story is clear and effective; its setting in such a recognizable locale as ancient Egypt makes it easy to follow. It remains immensely popular, though according to that useful website Operabase.com its overall position in the popularity stakes has slumped of late from No. 8 down to No. 14. 

Whatever its current status, many recent productions in the UK have not worked out — often, one might suggest, because departing from the original scenario has robbed the piece of its elegant simplicity and significance. That same problem recurred when Daniel Slater’s new staging of the work, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, opened at Opera Holland Park on June 24. Ancient Egyptian imagery was at least on stage for the show, but the objects representing that culture were contained in glass cases: we were in the Egyptian wing of a large and well equipped modern museum, where Aida worked as a cleaner and Radamès and the other Egyptians were wealthy patrons. Amonasro entered with the other Ethiopian prisoners dressed not as soldiers of any period but as the urban poor of today; they were mocked by the rich attendees of the fancy-dress party the Triumph Scene had become — at least before it turned into an orgy.

The net effect of Slater’s intervention was to undermine the relationships on either side of the piece’s national divide, and indeed those between one side and the other; it was at no point clear, for instance, who the priests were in this new dispensation, nor who eventually punished Radamès for what crime. The plot basically descended into nonsense. Coincidentally or not, the present writer saw more audience members get up and leave the auditorium on this particular evening than ever before at this theatrical address.

The music, paradoxically, went well, even given the difficulty of casting the principal parts in this day and age (or perhaps any). Soprano Gweneth-Ann Jeffers brought a substantial and liquid tone to the title role, shaping her phrases with grace and floating her high notes skillfully. Mezzo Heather Shipp could have done with more weight as Amneris, but there was nevertheless authentic Italianate fire in her soul. Tenor Peter Auty sang with power and impact as Radamès, suggesting that the captain of the Egyptian guard was a military leader to reckon with. Jonathan Veira brought his gravelly tone to bear on Amonasro, exploiting the sounds of the Italian text to imaginative expressive effect in creating the fierce Ethiopian warrior before our eyes. Both Keel Watson’s King of Egypt and Graeme Broadbent’s Ramfis were towers of strength in delivering the vocal goods. Manlio Benzi conducted a performance containing plenty of noticeable detail and offering at times tremendous power; the choral presence and tone were both ample. Yet as a drama this Aida remained moribund: this really was a case of “shut your eyes and think of Egypt.” —George Hall

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