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Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
15 Mar 2011

Aida, London

Strict courtly hierarchies and the repressed formality of ritual juxtaposed with violent sexual jealousy and lurid erotic excess … a stage-world more suited to the Straussian insalubrity of Salomé than to the epic grandeur of Verdi’s Aida, perhaps?

Giuseppi Verdi: Aida

Aida: Liudmyla Monastyrska; Radamès: Roberto Alagna; Amneris: Olga Borodina; Ramfis: Vitalij Kowaljow: Amonasro: Michael Volle; King of Egypt: Brindley Sherratt; Messenger: Steven Bell; High Priestess: Madeleine Pierard. Conductor: Fabio Luisi. Director: David McVicar. Associate Director: Leah Hausman. Set Designer: Jean-Marc Puissant. Costume Designer: Moritz Junge. Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Friday, 11th March 2011.

Above: Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House


David McVicar’s production, first seen in 2010 and here given its first revival, never wavers in its presentation of grotesque barbarism and sexual abandon — blood-thirsty gladiators run amok among nubile, naked maidens etc. — and while such goings-on may not be to everyone’s taste (indeed, some might argue that ‘taste’ doesn’t feature strongly in the proceedings), McVicar certainly injects freshness into Verdi’s old warhorse, thankfully avoiding the kitsch of cod-Egyptiana.

The first challenge for the audience is a visual one: for Jean-Marc Puissant's sets reject the beauty and exoticism of ancient Egypt in favour of dull modern industrialism: a huge wall of scaffolding, harshly illuminated by diagonal strip lights, dominates the stage. Not an elephant or sphinx in sight; but also little visual beauty to complement the tenderness of the delicate lines that open Verdi’s magical prelude. We are among a barbaric, theocratic society, one driven by human sacrifice: salacious human slaughter blesses Radamès’ departure for war, and the victims’ bloodied bodies are hoisted to form a canopy of carcasses to celebrate his return. Clearly McVicar wants to emphasise the soullessness of this brutal, compassionless community. But, at times he struggles to sustain consistency; for example, the eclectic, international selection of primitive tribal dress worn by the cast seems to have little to do with the gloomy dystopian landscape.

In the absence of a coherent mise-en-scène, it’s left to the singers themselves to provide dramatic logic and focus; and here the problems start, for the cast, while rich in musical talents, display a dearth of interest in communicating narrative or engaging emotionally with each other, preferring the stand-and-deliver approach, bellowing into the auditorium apparently impervious to the manic action occurring behind them.

There are two casts for this revival. Only one member of the original cast, Micaela Carosi, was expected to reprise her role, as the eponymous princess in the ‘Cast A’ performances; however, due to pregnancy (the official line goes …) she withdrew and was replaced at short notice by the Ukrainian soprano, Liudmyla Monastyrska. Making her house debut — she is to return in May as Lady Macbeth in Phyllida Lloyd’s production — Monastyrska revealed a powerful, opulent voice, firm and controlled in the lower register (in ‘Presago il core’, for example), and full in tone right to the top; in her great Nile scene aria, ‘O patria mia’, she floated the fiendish final phrases with ease, her breath control superb. At times, she made effective use of a dusky, exotic colouring, but it’s a shame that it was impossible to distinguish a single word of the text, and she didn’t quite have the confidence to risk the true pianissimos that the score demands.

AIDA-BC201103080125a-ALAGNA.gifRoberto Alagna as Radames and Priestesses

Roberto Alagna has an uneven history in the role of Radamès (audience displeasure with his ‘Celeste Aida’ led to his infamous walk-out at La Scala in 2006), and some have judged his voice too small for the part. However, here he showed that he now has the required vocal power; brimming with confidence, he never once lessened the ardour. Indeed, this was a puffed-up, machismo reading of Radamès, and again there was little in the way of what one might call acting. He opted out of the morendo on the high B at the close of ‘Celeste Aida’, choosing instead the less risky alternative of repeating the final phrase slightly less loudly. A lack of nuance diminished the poignancy of the final duet (and the bare stage suggested that McVicar had run out of ideas by the later acts), but overall there was plenty of heroic strength and earnestness, which seemed to satisfy the crowd.

As Amneris, Russian mezzo soprano Olga Borodina was similarly impressive in vocal stature, and she achieved a true Verdian colour and warmth. She shared the theatrical weaknesses of the other principals, but her stunning, burnished tone was apt compensation. Dramatic credibility was restored by Michael Volle, a resonant and commanding Amonasro whose Act 3 duet with Aida was a rare and moving moment of engagement, interaction and insight; here, Volle truly communicated the father’s appreciation and regret that his own public actions and concerns will cause his daughter to suffer such deep private pain. In the smaller roles, Vitalij Kowaljow was underwhelming as Ramfis — perhaps his voice was muffled by his ridiculously over-sized headdress? — but Brindley Sherratt, an imperious King of Egypt, was in fine voice.

AIDA-BC201103080230-BORODIN.gifOlga Borodina as Amneris and The Royal Opera Chorus

Apart from one or two places where singers and orchestra momentary came adrift, Fabio Luisi did an excellent job in the pit, whipping up the players in the climactic moments, and demonstrating a strong sense of the shape and pace of the whole.

Overall, despite its musical strengths and potentially intriguing concept, this production remains unsatisfying. Part of the problem is that McVicar is absorbed primarily by the ‘love triangle’ but does not connect the protagonists’ experience with the wider context. In contrast to the dynamic dramatic swiftness of Verdi’s other political intrigues, Aida is unwieldy and often downright static. One can’t get away from the fact that Verdi’s opera is a big, bold beast; the challenge is to both juxtapose and integrate the moments of private intimacy with the grand ceremony and pageantry of public triumphal processions and dances. McVicar gives us only one half of the show; Radamès’ commanding entry at the commencement of the Grand March, stage-enveloping train majestically trailing in his wake, is a rare and arresting moment of grandeur. More usually, the crowd scenes are under-directed — why have extra chorus members if you don’t know what to do with them, or simply aren’t interested? And there’s just too much standing about and arm waving: ironically, in striving for the shock of the new, McVicar has lapsed into the clichés of old.

Claire Seymour

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