Verdi’s love triangle gets lost in this flag waving, gun toting, totalitarian state.
In the world of opera, Don Giovanni has the reputation of being a director’s graveyard. Faced with the task of blending the serious with the comic, many who’ve tried have come a cropper. Yet over the years I’ve seen many rewarding versions, but one opera that seems to exert an even more potent and deadly curse on directors, is Verdi’s Aida. The last four stagings at Covent Garden have, by and large, been duds. Directors as experienced as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Elijah Mosshinsky, Robert Wilson and David McVicar have all been floored by an opera that at its heart deals with such intimate human emotions as loyalty, love and betrayal, but all played out in front of a gargantuan backdrop of public spectacle.
Whether or not the first night audience for its latest staging, directed by the Canadian director Robert Carsen, was really expecting pyramids and elephants is debatable. They certainly gave this modern dress version a decidedly lukewarm reception – tepid applause and a couple of boos greeted the production team when they took their curtain call. And you can kind of see why. If a production’s going to ditch all the usual Aida trappings, it needs to deliver a compelling alternative in its place – something that failed to happen on this occasion.
Carsen is usually a director who manages to distil the essence of a work, recreating it afresh, but along with his collaborators Miriam Buether (designs), Annemarie Woods (costumes) and Duncan McLean (video) they somehow manage to sap this opera of all its theatricality. Updating the action to the modern day is fine if it adds immediacy to the proceedings, and delivers new insights: here, however, in Buether’s monochrome sets and Woods’ dowdy costumes we’re in a bleak totalitarian state. War is omnipresent, brought home throughout the triumphal scene and the opera’s other big set pieces by McLean’s video footage of fighter planes, tanks, soldiers and bombs being dropped. Yes, the opera explores ideas around conflict and nationhood, but there’s a lot more to it as well, yet what we get here is a one-dimensional interpretation of the work that ultimately fails to do justice to Verdi’s complex and detailed narrative.
Musically, the evening was far more rewarding. Not having conducted this opera here since the ill-fated Wilson staging, music director Antonio Pappano was a galvanising force in the pit. The bombastic elements in the score never came across as vulgar, while the quieter, more introspective passages were lovingly shaped with a rare tenderness and he supported his singers impeccably, as you’d expect from a conductor so steeped in Verdi’s idiom.
“…tepid applause and a couple of boos greeted the production team…”
The Royal Opera had assembled a fine cast, but there was one singer who really stood out and delivered a lesson in world-class Verdi singing – French baritone Ludovic Tézier as an imposing, idiomatic Amonasro. He possess a rock solid technique, and his sculpting of Verdi’s long phrases, allied to a gloriousl, richly-coloured voice all cement his position as one of the world’s leading Verdi baritones.
After her impressive Tosca and, according to reports, a sensational last minute jump-in as Salome last week, Elena Stikhina was both touching and vulnerable in the title role. She somehow managed to overcome the dowdiness of her faux-Maoist costume and radiated a sense of majesty, while her singing was radiant throughout. There’s a glint of steel in the voice, which used to telling effect in ‘Ritorna vincitor’, yet her performance never became strident. ‘O Patria mia’ was beautifully voiced, with plenty of ravishingly floated high notes. She’s one of the finest Aidas I’ve seen.
As her nemesis, and rival in affections for Radames, Polish mezzo-soprano Agnieszka Rehlis was a favourite in the eyes of the audience on this, her house debut. Looking as though she’d just stepped off the set of Dynasty, and playing the character as a power dressing autocrat, she commanded the stage with her riveting presence and gloriously rich voice.
Italian tenor Francesco Meli certainly had a decent try at Radames, but it’s a taxing role that requires an heroic tenor voice, which unfortunately Meli doesn’t possess. He came a cropper at the end of ‘Celeste Aida’, resorting to some uncomfortable falsetto, and lacked stage presence. He, more than most, was hampered by the contemporary army fatigues he was required to wear as they did nothing to suggest the character’s stature. True, he settled down as the evening progressed, but mostly seemed out of his comfort zone. An excellent singer in the right role, he was a sensational Duke in Rigoletto a few years ago, but here seemed miscast.
Another debutante, Soloman Howard, excelled as Ramfis, his cavernous, inky-black bass voice ideal for the part of the vengeful priest. In Sung Sim made his mark as the King, whilst Francesca Chiejina intoned the offstage Priestess’ part to perfection – her silvery voice carrying well into the house.
Yet again the augmented chorus under William Spalding’s exemplary direction produced an homogeneous, thrilling sound. Their contribution to the evening’s musical success was key. So, a mixed bag then. The production returns in the spring with a new conductor, Aida and Amneris. It’ll be fascinating to see what difference they make to the staging.
• Details of future performances can be found here.