Having missed the first two operas in Opera Holland Park’s 2015 season, highly-acclaimed stagings of Il Triticco and Flight, we were hoping this enterprising company would score a hat-trick with this third offering; its first ever production of Verdi’s Aida. Alas it was not to be, for Daniel Slater’s re-imagining of Verdi’s epic opera tackling such lofty themes as oppression, religion and fidelity, was nothing more than a vacuous romp mired in the pig-trough of mediocrity from the very beginning.
These days it’s probably safe to say that no one really expects parades of elephants and tunic-wearing Egyptians redolent of the days of the Pharaohs to be the visual aesthetic of a staging, but to jettison everything that Verdi intended and to replace it was something as old-hat as Slater did here is an example of regietheater gone mad.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ designs locate us in a modern day museum, and on their own terms they provide a stylish backdrop to the drama, but what goes on within them, traducing Verdi’s opera to a kitchen sink drama, turns this enterprise into a ‘Nightmare at the Museum’.
We have no problem with the decision to update it to the here and the now, as long as it’s done with panache and conviction, but unfortunately Slater wheeled out a series of tired old clichés; Aida as a cleaner, the Egyptians as a champagne-quaffing, coke-snorting posse of Wolf of Wall Street wannabes and Amneris as some hoity-toity social climber, sashaying around the stage with all the allure of Ann Widdecombe in ‘Strictly’. It reached its nadir when the Ethiopian prisoners were revealed to be members of staff from the museum, taken hostage by the revellers who by now, we’re supposed to assume, were as high as kites. To call this farrago amateur would be an insult to the South Purley Operatic Players.
Although the cast contained no voices that were truly Verdian, all the principals had a brave stab at what the composer required of them, with varying degrees of success. In the title role Gweneth-Ann Jeffers came off best; plenty of colour in the voice allied to a secure technique led to many thrilling moments, and she rode the climaxes with plenty of tone to spare. It was always going to be an uphill struggle attempting to create sympathy for the character whilst roaming the stage stuffing litter into a black bin bag, so she deserves a medal for at least trying. Peter Auty’s intonation problems that led to a bumpy rendition of ‘Celeste Aida’, soon ironed themselves out whilst Heather Shipp brought a sense of grandeur to the role of Amneris. Jonathan Veira (Amonasro), Graeme Broadbent (Ramfis) and Keel Watson (The King) all made a strong vocal impression in their supporting roles.
In the pit Manlio Benzi had the epic scope of Verdi’s opera, that was so blatantly missing from the stage, well within his grasp. The chorus sang lustily but looked ill at ease, especially in the coke-snorting ‘orgy’. It’s a shame that this was such a turkey, but at least OHP is in august company given that the Royal Opera’s last four stagings have all been duds, as was ENO’s Zandra Rhodes’ migraine-inducing designed production of a few years ago. Perhaps we’ll never see a decent Aida in London, and that would be a real shame.