The best thing about David McVicar’s new production of Verdi’s Aida for the Royal Opera is that he jettisons all the superfluous Egyptian paraphernalia that so often overpowers the work. Unfortunately he and his designers fail to present a coherent alternative, so we are left with an ugly, vacuous staging that fails on almost every level. If it weren’t for conductor Nicola Luisotti’s lovingly-shaped account of the work and some spirited playing from the orchestra this would have been an evening of mind-numbing torpor.
No Nile, no pyramids, no hieroglyphics and, thankfully, no elephants. Those were the distinct advantages of the Royal Opera’s new staging of Verdi’s Aida. The pictures of the staging that were liberally scattered throughout the programme gave notice that this was going to be more of a kind of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ take on Verdi’s epic opera. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but when the curtain, or to be more accurate, scrim rose on a dimly lit Royal Opera House stage the ‘sets’ resembled a couple of fire-damaged walls. Jean-Marc Puissant’s designs had, apparently, been inspired by the remains of the trolley bus terminus on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. All I can say is it that it can’t be much fun waiting for a night bus in Kabul.
Doom and gloom were the order of the day and in Moritz Junge’s bizarre costumes, Amneris looked as though she had a buzzard attached to her head, we were well and truly in operatic neverland. If there had been a shred of a dramatic spark on stage, staring into a badly-lit charred out bus depot for three hours may have been endurable but I was at a loss to fathom out exactly what McVicar had done with his cast during the rehearsal period. McVicar is one of the most innovative operatic directors currently before the public and usually his direction of the singers is his strongest attribute, so I’m not sure what went wrong here but the singers resorted to stand and deliver antics and semaphore that were well past their sell by date years ago.
Maybe if the cast had been up to the challenge the evening wouldn’t have seemed as depressing but trying to cast this opera must be a nightmare and it showed. When the most consistently musical singing comes from the off-stage Priestess (the ever-excellent Elisabeth Meister), you know you’re in trouble. Marcelo Álvarez was singing Radames for the first time but his tenor doesn’t have the required trumpet-like quality for the role, whilst Marianne Cornetti certainly produced plenty of volume when required, but at the expense of tonal clarity. Marco Vratogna failed to make his mark as Amonasro and Micaela Corsi’s unwieldy soprano made her a coarse-grained and acid-toned Aida her high notes became an endurance as the evening wore on, especially as she forced the tone, which caused the pitch to sag whenever she sang at full throttle. I can’t remember the last time I heard such wayward Verdi singing at Covent Garden.
On a more positive note, the chorus sang lustily and Nicola Luisotti conducted a superbly-paced account of the work, and the orchestra responded with plenty of lovely, delicate playing. Before the performance I happened to mention to a colleague that I’d never seen a halfway decent staging of Aida, and unfortunately that still stands. Come back Robert Wilson all is forgiven.