Verdi’s Aida is admittedly one of the operas I knew little about, in terms of both narrative and its musical score.
An opera in four acts, Aida is set in Egypt at the time of the Pharoahs. The priesthood, through its self-proclaimed ability to interpret the gods’ will, controls the government and have long been at war with Ethiopia, many Ethiopians becoming enslaved.
Amneris (Alessandra Volpe) is the daughter of the reigning Egyptian King (Michael Druiett), who is in love with Radames (Rafael Rojas), a captain in the Egyptian military, the expectation being that they will marry. There is only one problem; Radames is secretly in love with Aida (Alexandra Zabala), a slave of the Egyptians but significantly, the daughter of the Ethiopian King (Eric Greene). Radames’s love is requited yet smothered. Until it isn’t.
Opera North have a fine back-catalogue, if you will, of productions, but this was a little different to those operas I have seen before.
I don’t say it was unusual per se, but a first for me, and a very pleasant first.
In the beautiful surroundings of the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, the orchestra takes position on the stage, rather than ‘banished’ to the lower level of the pit. Whereas I’m always happy to sit in the circle at such affairs as I love to watch the musicians, on this occasion my position from the stalls was just fine, as the wonderful orchestra, conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong, shared literal centre stage with the singers.
Concert staging, to use the correct term.
Without a set to distract, the cast took their places at the front of the stage as and when the story demanded it. Dressed in simple, modern clothing, the production laid bare only the musical and vocal talent. And what a talent it was.
There was nowhere for the performers to hide and how fortunate it was for myself and fellow theatre-goers that this was the case.
Sung in Italian, with English subtitles, the emotion and passion in the orchestral movements were matched by the beautiful and pitch-perfect vocals.
Indeed in the choir seats, (yes, I know the clue is in the description) it wasn’t clear whether the casually dressed, ‘civvy-clothed’ ensemble of people sat up there were fellow audience members or not (my only clue was the choreographed synchronicity with which they sat down – no messing about with coats and bags for them). My confusion was definitively cleared up when they burst into rapturous harmony and song, the acoustics in the great hall never more tested, never more giving.
Each performer was as charismatic as the last. I was drawn to Alessandra Volpe’s Amneris, the performance and characterisation playful, seductive and powerful until the realisation that her love is gone – her demeanour crumbling before your eyes.
Whilst Alexandra’s Zabala’s Aida is touching, sympathetic and moving in both character and tender performance, your empathy lies with both women – each vulnerable. Indeed, they are no winners in this narrative, right down to the very last haunting scene.
Murmurings around me in the interval demonstrated that I was not the only person moved by this wonderful production, and indeed, was a clue to what was to come at ‘final curtain’, with a lengthy, rapturous standing ovation and applause.
Indeed, at the Italian premiere of Aida at La Scala in 1872, the opera was a great success with the public and it seems that in its latest iteration nothing much has changed.
Part of a 12 night tour, Opera North’s Aida can be caught at Hull City Hall on Friday 7 June and finishes at Birmingham Symphony Hall on Tuesday 11 June.
And do, indeed catch it if you can.
Photo credits: Clive Bards (2-7)
The Author (1 and 8)