sun 08/12/2019

Aida, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

Aida, Royal Opera House

Aida, Royal Opera House

Strong singing lifts David McVicar's ancient carry-on above the routine

Stand-and-deliver tenor (Roberto Alagna as Radames) versus ants-in-pants dancers - not a good mixBoth photos by Bill Cooper for the Royal Opera

What kind of Aida would you prefer: one in which singing actors stretched to the limits find Verdi's human volcano of emotions beneath the cod-Egyptian rubble, or a stand-and-deliver production with a stalwart cast of beaten-bronze voices? Having had a taste at least of the former once in my life, I wasn't very happy to succumb to the latter in this Covent Garden revival. It was the wall of sound in the big Act II ensemble which made me at least willing to be convinced.

And then I wasn't. And then I was again. It's that kind of a show, a reminder of the bad old repertoire days at the Royal Opera after the total work of art, love it or hate it, of Anna Nicole. On an ugly, selectively lit set which proves unreadable right from the revolving wall at the start, singers who can't, or won't, act make actors and dancers who can seem daftly hyperactive in what amounts to ancient carry-on as usual with extra bodies and blood (did the Egyptians indulge in human sacrifice? A whole article devoted to the subject in the programme doesn't say. But where are we, anyway, and who cares?). It does seem bizarre that David McVicar, a director whose sensitivity and visual flair have created fully realised worlds in operas as different as Giulio Cesare, Der Rosenkavalier and Adriana Lecouvreur, to name but three, should be so stumped by the mainstream rep's last hoary melodrama to contain superb music that he doesn't appear to have come up with a coherent mise en scène.

But then you never know if the kind of singers making up the so-called "A cast" of this revival would be amenable to direction anyway. It gets off to an unpromising start with that wall in the Prelude - plunging the auditorium into darkness didn't incline the first-night audience to listen to the pianissimo violin phrases depicting our Ethiopian heroine - and Roberto Alagna having to tackle the notoriously difficult "Celeste Aida" minutes later. This Radames isn't the kind of warrior who'd let a grande amoreget in the way of military ambition; the vocal armour doesn't come off for a minute. Alagna started his career loud, developed a few scruples over the years, and now is loud, if lustrous and occasionally excitingly sharp, again. As for the acting, it's raise the left arm, raise the right arm, raise them both and bring them together (which by Act III becomes place left leg on ramp and down, right leg up and down, step up with both).

Monastyrska's soprano is laser-beam powerful in ensembles and duets, but also capable of the softest nuances which multiply as this schizoid role progresses

Then there are the redoubtable mezzo/contralto Olga Borodina (pictured below on the right), finding  plenty of vocal colour as the Egyptian princess who loves him in vain but nothing more in the way of interaction - always the real Verdian thing, though - and Ukrainian newcomer Liudmila Monastyrska (pictured below left) as her slave and abhorred love rival, who probably might act a bit if she'd had the time, but was having to replace a pregnant Micaela Carosi at the very last moment (doesn't an expectant mother know in good time when the singing has to stop?). I'd like to see once again a consummate singer-actress like the African-American Adina Aaron, my brief brush with the dramatic possibilities of the role in an otherwise conventional Savonlinna production, who conjured the ideal vision of a proud princess having to assume the humility of a slave; maybe "B cast" audiences will get that with Latonia Moore. But this was some house debut as far as the voice went. Monastyrska's lyric-dramatic soprano, both big and warm, is laser-beam powerful in ensembles and duets, but also capable of the softest nuances which multiply as this schizoid role progresses.

ISO-8859-1A9BC25FAIDA5FLIUDMYLA20MONASTYRSKA1That she did not perhaps have the most supportive and alert conductor in Fabio Luisi seemed to be confirmed by his problems with Alagna, though the tenor may be notoriously hard to catch. Orchestral colour could be bewitching in the Nile music and the dances, however flaky the choreography, less good in cushioning and floating the singers in their longer lines until we reached a surprisingly tender and elevated final scene where the lovers expire ever so seraphically in the underground vault. You imagine it might take a long time for Monastyrska to run out of breath; the technique seemed fairly unassailable, and though she's scheduled to sing Verdi's Lady Macbeth next, maybe it's already time for the major houses to think about the path to Brünnhilde and Elektra.

With two other fine voices, Vitalij Kowaljow's High Priest and Brindley Sherratt's King, almost smothered by silly costumes and war paint, and the choruses musically nuanced but insufficiently differentiated - we need to know exactly who the priests are - it was left to Michael Volle's powerful, perhaps un-Italianate but infallibly secure Amonasro to inject some semblance of believable drama. I guess he must have made Monastyrska momentarily feel like she meant something to someone else on stage, so close did he clutch her in the crucial father-daughter duet of Act III, and his first appearance in the middle of all that ludicrous blood-sacrifice pomp raised the drama, which had only sparked just a little in the Aida-Amneris confrontation, to a level from which it didn't descend until after the interval.

Otherwise, you'd have thought that second time around might have been the ideal opportunity for McVicar and his team to have a rethink on intent and design. As it is, this Aida as a concept is hardly more engaging than the shallow Elijah Moshinsky farrago previously seen at the Garden, and not nearly as beautiful to look at as the much-maligned Robert Wilson production which came in between. For all its fatal stillness when the music blazed, that might have been more successfully wheeled out for the present team of world-class singers. As it is, Covent Garden will have to try again. Or just do Aida in concert, which I'd be quite happy to hear with these ladies, at least.

As for the acting, it's raise the left arm, raise the right arm, raise them both and bring them together

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Comments

I'm sure it's my loss, but listening to Aida, either in an opera house or at home, has me thinking about what else I could be doing with my life from about 15 minutes in. This one sounds like it would have extended that run. Is there a way of doing it that doesn't seem to be endless bombastic tosh?

I've avoided Aida for years having many years ago seen some very dire touring productions. Imagine the Triumphal March consisting of 4 guys on stage doing a Wilson, Keppel and Betty style sand dance for the duration and You're only half there as to how bad those were. So this was a chance to see if Aida could be rehabilitated for me by seeing a proper company put on a large scale production. I totally agree with the comments about Alagna and his acting ability. I saw him many years ago when he was even worse. His ego at the time was immense as he was trying to convince everyone he was the "Fourth Tenor" and heir to Pavarotti. I made exactly the same comments about his acting to my companion last night. The reviewer could have been listening to our conversation. Olga Borodina was a magnificent Amneris. I still see her as the stunning Tatyana in Glyndebourne's Eugene Onegin. She's a bit plumper these days but that seems to have given even more depth and character to the voice. Certainly she was the best of the lead singers. Again, I totally agree about the McVicar production and the set. There's no narrative in the set, it doesn't tell you anything, not even that we're talking about ancient Egypt. The general problem with Aida is that large portions of it are orchestral and intended to be able to give time to show the pageant. Considering the premiere included having to drag elephants across the scenery in the open air one can see the need for this. However, it is very difficult to translate this in to a comparatively small indoor theatre. What I will say is that the size of the RO chorus with the addition of real dancers provides enough going on on stage to stave off any boredom. You don't necessarily have to like it or understand what McVicar is trying to portray - yes, the sacrifical scenes and the clump of hanging bodies. All in all I did enjoy it enough to not want to leave, which considering my previous view of Aida means it has had a moderate rehabilitation for me.

Olga Borodina as Tatiana - that must have been quite something! How come I missed it?

Mark, that's true about the routines - and the eviscerations of the always dragging first temple scene - keeping boredom at bay. Only here I'd say you had 19 blokes doing a naff martial-arts display worthy of the 02 instead of 4 doing a Wilson, Keppel and Betty routine (that was left to the 11 energetic dancers). I still refuse to believe something interesting can't be done with the ballet, along the lines of the weird and gripping table-tumbling we got in the Albery Tannhauser. As for the Tatyana, I think you must have been referring to Yelena Prokina, who was stupendous then. The Olga was Louise Winter, and Borodina quickly gave up the role, as she did Paulina in Queen of Spades, as being too small to be worthy of her interest. Both Borodina and Prokina were allied to Gergiev - I guess OB still is in a sense. Roger - I used to think the same. Then I was totally seduced by the later duets, which I'd never hung around for in the days of my youth, when there were some truly terrible productions on show (and I didn't have to write about them). But it's hard to resist Carreras and Baltsa with Karajan, or Leontyne Price in the final scene, which does have to be one of the most extraordinary endings in opera - especially in supposedly grand opera.

David, You're right, memory was playing tricks on me, it was Prokina. I suppose it did rather resemble the Chinese State Circus and the Shaolin Monks. However, what I was saying was that compared to the productions I'd seen before that I thought had put me off Aida for life, this was at least enough to make it interesting enough for me to actually want to stay. I suppose there's always the element of expectation. Aida is expected to be a spectacular extravanganza and it's almost impossible to live up to that. It was certainly an interesting contrast with the ENO Parsifal I saw earlier in the week. For long slow periods of inaction that can lead to numbing boredom you can't beat Parsifal, yet I was transfixed all the way through. And on the other hand at the WNO Il Trovatore the other week I was almost in tears with boredom due to the interminable scene changes.

I enjoyed this performance a great deal. It was great to hear exceptional singing from so many of the singers. I enjoyed Alagna's contribution much more than I thought I would. I was intrigued to hear the alternative end of celeste aida (written for Parma according to Budden). Much better than just belting out the last note fortissimo. I thought that the static treatment of the principals highlighted the rigid hierarchies that they were all bound in. As to the bombastic nature of some of the music surely that empty rhetoric is deliberate and should evoke feelings of disgust. The last thing we need is a staging that revels in the glorification of war. My companion who had never seen Aida before perceptively said that the famous parts of Aida (grand march etc) are not very typical of the whole opera. Rather than bombast what is notable is the almost chamber music quality of much of the writing. Mark - I dont think there were any elephants at the premiere, at least Budden doesnt mention them in the list of soldiers and officers that make their entrance before the prisoners come on stage in act 2 scene 2. Nor did the premiere happen in the open air. I think you are confusing this with performances at Verona? I saw Aida at the temple of Karnak and whilst there was an enthusiastic contribution from the cavalry of the Egyptian army I dont recollect elephants there either.

Rigid, stock movements are fine for 'static hierarchies', Peter, but don't you think it would have been more powerful if these singers had started to behave like real human beings when their private obsessions appeared? Mind you, David may have a point that sacred monsters like these won't do what the director asks of them.

Graziella I felt that the private emotions did come through especially in the nile scene, which I think is the heart of the opera. The conflict between family love, desire, politics and duty is writ large here and was well expressed. Generally, the non-naturalistic acting seemed right to me in this context which is often about power politics and ambition rather than genuine feeling. Aida showed a huge range of tonal colour reflecting her changing feelings. Perhaps Amneris could have been subtler. I have seen performances (ENO many years ago) where she was utterly crushed emotionally at the end by the realisation of what she had done. I didnt mean to imply that I was in favour of "Rigid, stock movements". I used the word static to describe one aspect of the staging and rigid to describe the political/emotional world the characters are trapped in. Alagna's gestures seemed to me not too bad when say compared to the antics of the late Franco Bonisolli or indeed the inaction of Pavarotti (whom I had the misfortune to see at ROH in this role). Memory has deceived me too. I saw Aida not at the temple of Karnak but the temple of Luxor. But it was 24 years ago...

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