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English National Opera

In Review ENO Aida hdl 118
A new Aida at ENO, with Musa Ngqungwana and Latonia Moore
© Tristram Kenton

ON SEPTEMBER 28, English National Opera opened its season with a new production of Aida, a repertory staple with which the company has had little success in recent decades. Given the work’s long performance history, aesthetic requirements as well as audience expectations dictate a level of visual spectacle that not all budgets or stage designers seem able to satisfy. In addition, Aida demands grand-scale singing, as well as sophisticated conducting.

Some of these elements were in place at the London Coliseum. The title role was taken by Latonia Moore, who has previously sung Aida at the Met and at the Royal Opera House in Italian, as opposed to the clunky translation that is offered by the Anglophone company. Moore was able to voice all of Verdi’s notes with sufficiency of power and variety of tone, as well as providing them with purposive expressive emphases; the result was that hers was easily the most complete of the evening’s individual performances.

Michelle DeYoung made a less positive impression as Amneris, her tone at times mottled and her English vowels almost wilfully contorted; she also suffered more than the other characters from some particularly outlandish frocks courtesy of costume designer Kevin Pollard. 

The Radamès of Gwyn Hughes Jones—regular artist at ENO and many other companies, where the sheer reliability of his punchy tenor is appreciated in spinto assignments—fitted the bill efficiently, though his acting was a good deal more limited. Director Phelim McDermott got surprisingly little out of his cast members in the opera’s intimate scenes, in which the plot’s crucial internal and interpersonal conflicts scarcely registered at a physical level.

South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana was Amonasro, making his welcome U.K. opera debut, though his essentially lyric instrument lacked the potency and aggressive vehemence needed for Verdi’s depiction of the fierce Ethiopian warrior-king. ENO chorister Robert Winslade Anderson contributed a solid Ramfis, while Matthew Best was a wavery Egyptian king. 

ENO’s chorus and orchestra both had a good evening. Keri-Lynn Wilson’s conducting could have done with more dynamism, and at times tighter ensemble, but the musical performance was respectable and often more. But McDermott’s staging, undertaken as usual in conjunction with the theater company Improbable, and on this occasion with the participation of the female-led acrobatic troupe Mimbre, fell short of providing a coherent visual frame for Verdi’s straightforward drama. 

Atmospherically lit by Bruno Poet, Tom Pye’s sets registered some monumentalism, but the movement (variously attributed to Lina Johansson and silk-effects choreographer Basil Twist) was at best decorative and at worst distracting. Pollard’s period-crossing costumes looked random and at times bizarre; in his program interview, even McDermott referred to the setting as “a slight mash up.” If Aida is becoming visually problematic, it remains a necessary piece; maybe returning it to the traditional setting is the solution.  —George Hall 

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