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Reviews

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30 Sep 2017

Aida opens the season at ENO

Director Phelim McDermott’s new Aida at ENO seems to have been conceived more in terms of what it will look like rather than what the opera is or might be ‘about’. And, it certainly does look good. Designer Tom Pye - with whom McDermott worked for ENO’s Akhnaten last year (alongside his other Improbable company colleague, costume designer Kevin Pollard) - has again conjured striking tableaux and eye-catching motifs, and a colour scheme which balances sumptuous richness with shadow and mystery.

Aida: English National Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: ENO Cast and Chorus

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

 

Of McDermott’s Satyagraha in 2010, one of my colleagues wrote, ‘There are so many amazing images in this production that it’s hard to take them all in at once’. Here, it’s more a case of there are so many diverse visual images that it’s hard to make them come together in any coherent way.

The sets do establish an ‘epic’ mood: coarse-grained rock textures suggest monumental edifices and set off Pollard’s striking fabrics, face-paint and fabulous headdresses (topped with antlers in Act 2!). Bruno Poet’s lighting design is one of the best things about the production. On the poster advertising this opening production of ENO’s 2017/18 season, a blade of light slices through darkness, bouncing off granite to bathe a standing woman, who gazes aloft as if in supplication, in a cone of light. A similar triangle of red dissects the black drop which confronts us at the start, gradually widening and opening up a small geometric space on the wide Coliseum stage. Throughout, Poet sculpts his light like sliding walls, to create mystery. Sometimes diagonal rays sear across the stage; at other times subtle mists shimmer.

Latonia Moore 2 (c) Tristram Kenton.jpg Latonia Moore (Aida). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

A prevailing hieroglyph - the ‘breadcone’, designating a ‘gift’ or ‘offering’ - evokes a pyramid. But, that’s just about the only hint of Egypt we get. For, while the visuals are spectacular, they don’t help to ‘tell the story’, and there is no coherent sense of context. A programme article explains McDermott’s thoughts about the period setting, which he describes as ‘a slight mash up’: ‘It’s not ancient and it’s not modern. I’m not dissing the past, but we’ve got modern battle gear and yet priests and temple dancers too. It’s its own world, like a dream which is not real but has its own logic and you can do anything with that as long as you stay within the logic.’

The allusions are indeed eclectic, but I’m not sure I could recognise their ‘logic’. Radamès first appears wearing a gilt braided blue tunic, topped with fur pelisse, worthy of a Napoleonic Hussar, but in the fateful tomb he has ditched his uniform for a grubby grey shirt. The participants in the sacred ritual which prepares the Egyptian general for battle against the Ethiopians seem to have been modelled on the semi-clad women who sit behind the windows of Amsterdam’s red-light district, while the celebrants at the victory procession sport an array of outlandish 30s-style outfits. The priestesses of Isis who await the wedding of Amneris and Radamès look like they have borrowed their red robes from Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids. Amneris herself seems to have got trapped in an outsize origami confection.

Eleanor Dennis, Robert Winslade Anderson and members of Mimbre (c) Tristram Kenton.jpgEleanor Dennis (High Priestess), Robert Winslade Anderson (Ramfis) and members of Mimbre. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Within this smorgasbord of references there is little sense of who the protagonists are, of the love triangle between them, or of the context which pits their love against their loyalty. Static visual images have taken priority over the development of character and relationship. There is scarcely any convincing interaction. The programme offers an account of McDermott’s rehearsal methods: he has encouraged his cast to ‘explore three options: stand still, move forward, or move backwards’.

Most seem to have plumped for the first option. Singers barely look at each other or engage physically; instead, on the whole they stand stock still, facing the audience. Basil Twist’s beautiful silks flutter and billow but the only other movement on stage comes from the dancers and acrobats of Mimbre, who entertain Amneris when she prepares to welcome home Radamès by tumbling light-footedly or forming geometric human sculptures. In the triumphal scene, some of the latter look so complex and potentially precarious that perhaps they should come with a warning, ‘don’t try this at home’.

Gwyn Hughes Jones, members of Mimbre and ENO Chorus (c) Tristram Kenton.jpg Gwyn Hughes Jones (Radamès), members of Mimbre and ENO Chorus. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

We have no elephants, but there is some flag-waving and coffin-carrying - and, some terrific trumpet playing from the six onstage players whose gorgeously warm tone glows with an energy that is missing among the artfully positioned but static throng. Indeed, the ENO orchestra play consistently well for Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson who balances vigour and refinement, injects tension effectively and conjures exoticism and magic at the start of Act 3. The enlarged ENO Chorus produced some beautiful hushed, reverential singing in Act 1.

Aida Latonia Moore 4.jpg Latonia Moore (Aida). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

ENO is fortunate in that they have an eponymous Ethiopian princess whose glorious soprano gleams with an intensity to match Poet’s beams of light. American Latonia Moore is simply fabulous: she soars above the rest of the cast - literally and figuratively. When she commenced ‘Ritorna vincitor’, she made one immediately sit up and listen: for the first time we had persuasive, genuine human emotion, and as the performance developed she showed that from the gentlest pianissimo to the plushest fortissimo she could make us believe unwaveringly in Aida’s devotion, defiance, despair and dignity. ‘O patria mia’ was infused with strength and sincerity, and if she seemed a little nervous about the top C that could be forgiven. In Aida’s duet with Amneris, Moore’s soprano blazed radiantly and effortlessly.

Gwyn Hughes Jones’s tenor has plenty of ringing vibrancy. His Radamès is a plausible soldier and makes a confident entrance, sustaining the final Bb well in ‘Celeste Aida’. Even more shine at the top might help to convince us of his passion for Aida and give fervour to his confrontation with Amneris, but Jones has the stamina for the role and the Tomb Scene intimacy is moving, the poignancy of the lovers’ short-lived reunion deepened by the presence of Amneris, watching from above.

Mimbre and MDY.jpg Mimbre and Michelle DeYoung (Amneris). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

As Amneris, mezzo Michelle DeYoung seemed to be struggling. Certainly, her Act 1 costume was ‘larger-than-life’ but vocally DeYoung was too ragged and unfocused to convey the tragic princess’s conflicted emotions. It didn’t help that some distorted vowels made the clunky English translation even more cumbersome. De Young’s characterisation was unmodulated and somewhat superficial, though her voice did relax and begin to bloom in the Judgement Scene.

Eleanor Dennis was poised and imperious as the High Priestess, and Robert Winslade Anderson (deputising for the indisposed Brindley Sherratt) and Matthew Best were more than competent as Ramfis and the (white-suited?) Egyptian King respectively. Musa Ngqungwana’s Amonasro wasn’t quite imposing enough; a bit more patriarchal authority was needed.

Whatever misgivings there may be about McDermott’s ‘logic’, if there’s one reason to see this show, it’s the opportunity to hear Moore in a role she has sung to great acclaim many times, including at the Met and the ROH, for her performance confirms her as a lirico spinto of great distinction.

Claire Seymour

Verdi: Aida

Aida - Latonia Moore, Amneris - Michelle DeYoung, Radamès - Gwyn Hughes Jones, Ramfis - Robert Winslade Anderson, Amonasro - Musa Ngqungwana, King - Matthew Best, High Priestess - Eleanor Dennis, Messenger - David Webb; Director - Phelim McDermott, Conductor - Keri-Lynn Wilson, Designer - Tom Pye, Lighting designer - Bruno Poet, Costume designer - Kevin Pollard, Silk effects choreographer - Basil Twist, Movement director - Lina Johansson, Chorus movement - Elaine Tyler-Hall, ENO Orchestra and Chorus, Mimbre Skills Ensemble.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Thursday 28th September 2017.

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