Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Daniel Kramer's new La traviata at English National Opera

Verdi's La traviata is one of those opera which every opera company needs to have in its repertoire, and productions need to balance intelligent exploration of the issues raised by the work with the need to reach as wide an audience as possible with an opera which is likely to attract audience members who are not regular opera-goers.

Haydn's Applausus: The Mozartists at Cadogan Hall

Continuing their MOZART 250 series, The Mozartists/ Classical Opera began dipping into the operatic offerings of 1768 at Wigmore Hall in January, when they presented numbers from Mozart’s La finta semplice, Jommelli’s Fetonte, Hasse’s Pirano e Tisbe and Haydn’s Lo speziale.

Schubert Schwanengesang revisited—Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Schwanengesang isn't Schubert's Swan Song any more than it is a cycle like Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. The title was given it by his publishers Haslingers, after his death, combining settings of two very different poets, Ludwig Rellstab and Heinrich Heine. Wigmore Hall audiences have heard lots of good Schwanengesangs, including Boesch and Martineau performances in the past, but this was something special.

Rinaldo: The English Concert at the Barbican Hall

“After such cruel events, I don’t know if I am dreaming or awake.” So says Almirena, daughter of the Crusader Goffredo, when she is rescued by her beloved warrior-hero, Rinaldo, from the clutches of the evil sorceress, Armida.

Hamlet abridged and enriched in Amsterdam

French grand opera and small opera companies are an unlikely combination. Yet OPERA2DAY, a company of modest means, is currently touring the Netherlands with Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.

The ROH's first production of From the House of the Dead

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the ROH of From the House of the Dead is ‘new’ in several regards. It’s (astonishingly) the first time that Janáček’s last opera has been staged at Covent Garden; it’s Warlikowski’s debut at Covent Garden; and the production uses a new 2017 critical edition prepared by John Tyrrell.

Così fan tutte at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With artifice, disguise, and questions on fidelity as the basis of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the composer’s mature opera has returned to the stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

WNO's Wheel of Destiny rolls into Birmingham

Welsh National Opera’s wheel of destiny has rolled into Birmingham this week, with Verdi’s sprawling tragedy, La forza del destino, opening the company’s ‘Rabble Rousing’ triptych at the Hippodrome.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal College of Music

The gossamer web of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sufficiently insubstantial and ambiguous to embrace multiple interpretative readings: the play can be a charming comic caper, a jangling journey through human pettiness and cruelty, a moonlit fairy fantasy or a shadowy erotic nightmare, and much more besides.

Robert Carsen's A Midsummer Night's Dream returns to ENO

Having given us Christopher Alden's strangely dystopic production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2011, English National Opera (ENO) has opted for Robert Carsen's bed-inspired vision for the latest revival of the opera at the London Coliseum.

Turandot in San Diego—Prima la voce

The big musical set pieces in Turandot require voice, voice, and more voice, and San Diego Opera has gifted us with a world-class cast of singing actors.

Dialogues de Carmélites at the Guildhall School: spiritual transcendence and transfiguration

Four years have passed since my last Dialogues des Carmélites, and on that occasion - Robert Carsen’s production for the ROH - heightened dramatic intensity, revolutionary insurrection (enhanced by an oppressed populace formed by a 67-strong Community Ensemble) and, under the baton of Simon Rattle, luxuriant musical rapture, were the order of the day.

'B & B’ in a new key

Seattle Opera’s new production of Béatrice et Bénédict is best regarded as a noble experiment, performed expressly to see if Berlioz’ delectable 1862 opéra comique can successfully be brought into the living repertory outside its native France. As such, it is quite a success.

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.

San Jose’s Dutchman Treat

At my advanced age, I have now experienced ten different productions of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in my opera-going lifetime, but Opera San Jose’s just might be the finest.

Mortal Voices: the Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court

The relationship between music and money is long-standing, complex and inextricable. In the Baroque era it was symbiotically advantageous.

I Puritani at Lyric Opera of Chicago

What better evocation of bel canto than an opera which uses the power of song to dispel madness and to reunite the heroine with her banished fiancé? Such is the final premise of Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani, currently in performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Iolanthe: English National Opera

The current government’s unfathomable handling of the Brexit negotiations might tempt one to conclude that the entire Conservative Party are living in the land of the fairies. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, the arcane and Arcadia really do conflate, and Cal McCrystal’s new production for English National Opera relishes this topsy-turvy world where peris consort with peri-wigs.

Il barbiere di Siviglia in Marseille

Any Laurent Pelly production is news, any role undertaken by soprano Stephanie d’Oustrac is news. Here’s the news from Marseille.



Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Aida [Photo by Robert Workman]
26 Jun 2015

Aida, Opera Holland Park

With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.

Aida, Opera Holland Park

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Aida

Photos by Robert Workman


But the wonderfully taut plot, tensions between public duty and private desire, strongly drawn characters and challenging music can provide a highly satisfying experience, especially as the leading roles are some of the most challenging and rewarding in the repertoire. Opera Holland Park has a track record for daring, producing operas which stretch the limited technical resources of their stage, so it was with great interest that I went along to the company’s very first production of Aida, which debuted on 24 June 2015. Daniel Slater directed, with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Tim Mascall, with Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Aida, Peter Auty as Radames, Heather Shipp as Amneris, plus Graeme Broadbent as Ramfis, Jonathan Veira as Amonasro, Keel Watson as the King and Emily Blanch as a priestess. Manlio Benzi conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

Inevitably we could not expect pyramids, camels and large scale theatrical effects. But Daniel Slater’s production was certainly not without surprises. The basic set consisted of a museum-like using the Holland Park House façade as backdrop and with statues from Ancient Egypt in a museum display. During the prelude, the chorus in modern dress (dinner suits and long dresses) exploded onto the stage and the opening scene was a party. Clearly we were in a modern Kingdom, albeit one obsessed by the past as Radames was inducted as general by dressing him in Ancient Egyptian garb, and for much of the second half the populace were dressed in neo-Ancient Egyptian fancy dress. Aida was a cleaning lady, busy cleaning up after the party-goers. The production was secularised, with Ramfis becoming a rather nasty political fixer. But the production had more surprises for us, when the captured Ethiopians are brought on in a small huddle they were dressed as service workers - cleaning ladies, janitors etc. Were they real Ethiopian captives who had been dressed like that to demonstrate that they were unimportant, or was the war on invading ‘Ethiopians’ really a border war with illegal immigrants? It was never made clear, but I inclined to the latter. Whichever, the Egyptians were displayed as rather nasty, selfish and unsympathetic.

aida-ohp-006---Heather-Shipp---Peter-Auty.pngHeather Shipp as Amneris and Peter Auty as Radames

But the removal religion from the plot, and the modernisation of the milieu also removed an essential element from the plot, the tension between public duty and private desires. In Daniel Slater's production I was not clear what Radames meant when he says he is renouncing his duty to his country, certainly he seemed to be emptying his wallet? The end result was gripping theatre, but it wasn't quite the Aida that Verdi envisaged.

When staging the opera the biggest question is not where to set it, after all Verdi’s plot works in a whole variety of situations, but what to do with the triumph scene. Aida came between the grand French version of Don Carlos and the first Italian version of that opera, Don Carlo. In Aida, with its combination of intimate scenes, and a conflict between public duty and private emotional desires in the context of a grand historical narrative, Verdi would seem to have been interested in re-working the French grand opera form to suit the Italian stage. This means that the triumph scene functions very like some of the large scale historical scenes with ballets in French grand opera. Wherever you set it, it needs large forces to bring it off, and frankly a lot of the music is not top-notch Verdi. A logical step would seem to be to cut it, but no-one does. Daniel Slater and movement director Maxine Braham gave us an orgy like party scene in which the Egyptians seemed to over indulge in everything in celebration of their ‘triumph’ over the Ethiopians. It made dramatic sense, and the chorus was clearly having fun, but the scene went on far too long, yet it was clearly appreciated by most of the audience.

The production worked because Opera Holland Park had assembled a strong and balance team of soloists under conductor Manlio Benzi. Whatever you thought of the ideas behind the production, the musical values were very high indeed and Daniel Slater had drawn vibrant performances from all concerned.

Aida is rather a passive role, and one of Gweneth Ann Jeffers (many) strengths was that even before she sang a note she had conveyed much of the character’s interior life. Throughout the opera her face, eyes and body language were profoundly expressive and gave us real insight into Aida’s mental stress. Gweneth Ann Jeffers has a substantial, vibrant voice (previously she has sung La Gioconda, Leonora in La forza del destino and Santuzza at Opera Holland Park and she has performed Aida at a number of theatres including Finish National Opera), yet she was also able to spin a beautiful long line. The Nile scene was sung with real expressive finesse with some finely extended quiet high notes. Throughout there was this sense of line, combined with a vibrant, well filled feeling for Verdi’s phrasing. She and Peter Auty’s Radames developed a really intense relationship, again using eyes and body language well before they sang a note together. Both brought out the secure core of the underlying relationship, the ending was never in doubt. The final scene gave us some finely sinuous lines in Verdi’s glorious melodies, though Daniel Slater did not help matters here by making both of them fatally ill and having the scene performed crawling about the floor. This was one area where I felt that less would have been more.

aida-ohp-125---Graeme-Broadbent---Peter-Auty.pngGraeme Broadbent as Ramfis and Peter Auty as Radames

If I said that Peter Auty’s Radames was a good steady portrayal of the hero, making him solid and dependable, then though sounds unexciting then it must be set into context of a role which few tenors today can sing with any degree of credit. Peter Auty gave a robust account of Celeste Aida with a climax which was secure, and expressive even if a trifle louder than ideal. But once past this hurdle he developed in strength, intensity and a feeling of the heroic, this was no stand and deliver performance.

Heather Shipp was a powerful Amneris, combining a vibrant vocal performance with a highly musical personality. She was very much an Amneris who chewed the scenery, but did so with a musical sense too. The Act 2 scene with Aida, where Amneris tricks Aida into revealing she loves Radames, was particularly strong with the two singers making a balance pairing. And Heather Shipp’s performance revealed what we already knew, Amneris was a complete bitch goddess - attractive, powerful, power-dressed and vicious. Her wonderful final solo scene was superbly done, Heather Shipp really held the stage with her strong, vibrant voice and intense dramatic presence, but the effect was weakened by making Peter Auty’s Radames run around, fleeing from the priests. Another example of the feeling that Daniel Slater was over-egging the drama.

Jonathan Veira made highly sympathetic Amonasro, bringing intensity to the role but he seemed to want to punch each note out so that his performance though vibrant rather lost any sense of line. He and Gweneth-Ann Jeffers poignantly brought out the tension in their relationship.

Graeme Broadbent's Ramfis was a far stronger personality, far more involved in the drama than is sometimes the case and he turned in a wonderfully vivid, at times alarming portrayal of a nasty piece of work. Keel Watson brought his large voice to bear on the King to create a really larger than life musical personality.

Emily Blanch made a fine impression in the small role of the priestess, now reduced simply to a cabaret vamp, and Peter Davoren was the messenger in Act One.

The chorus (chorus master Nicholas Jenkins), with no extra dancers involved in the production, were hard working and delivered a really strong musical performance throughout, singing with strong, vividly focussed tone. Whilst I might have had doubts about the staging of the Triumph scene, the quality of the musical and dramatic performance from the chorus was never in doubt. In the men only sections of the opera, the male chorus made a fine, firm sound and had a nice line in threatening behaviour. The women were seductive in the extreme in their scenes.

I was slightly worried about balance at first, as Manlio Benzi seemed to encouraging a strong and colourful account of the score from the orchestra but this settled down after a while and we were able to sit back and enjoy a vibrantly dramatic account of the score.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Aida: Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Radames: Peter Auty, Amneris: Heather Shipp, Ramfis: Graeme Broadbent, Amonasro: Jonathan Veira, the King: Keel Watson, priestess: Emily Blanch, messenger: Peter Davoren Conductor: Manlio Benzi with the City of London Sinfonia. Director: Daniel Slater, Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins, Lighting: Tim Mascall. Opera Holland Park, 24th June 2015.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):