Music: Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto: Antonio Ghislanzoni
Director: Annabel Arden
Conductor: Sir Richard Armstrong
Reviewer: Sam Lowe
There couldn’t have been a better venue choice for tonight’s opera than Bridgewater Hall. The sound of music and singing effortlessly swirls around the acoustics of the auditorium. Opera North’s concert staging of Aidamixes everyone around: the performers are right at the front, followed by the orchestra and then the chorus. The orchestra isn’t hidden away in the pit, they are at the heart of the action with everyone else.
Opera North may be based in Leeds but are truly international in their objectives. They have won many awards, touring their works to a plethora of theatres and concert halls. It’s not all opera, however, as their artistic programme encompasses: film, concerts, sound installations, gigs, and spoken word. Their standpoint is that opera and music is meant for anyone and everyone. They find new ways to interpret and present classic works: innovation and ambition make up the company’s ethos.
From the very first note, the audience are transported to Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs. The priesthood controls the government, as they are able to construe the commands of the Gods. This is a time of great suffering because of war. A war between Egypt and Ethiopia has been going on for a long, long time. Ethiopian prisoners have frequently been incarcerated. The King of Egypt (Michael Druiett) has one child, a daughter by the name of Amneris (Alessandra Volpe) she soon needs to be married to a suitor. Ethiopian woman, Aida (Alexandra Zabala) is not allowed to see her family and has been enslaved by the Egyptians. What those at the Palace don’t realise is that Aida is actually the daughter of the Ethiopian King called Amonasro (Eric Greene). The central story is based around a love triangle between Amneris, Aida, and Radames (Rafael Rojas) a captain in the Egyptian military.
The performance style is engaging. Fundamentally, the acting and movement of characters is naturalistic, however simultaneously there is something stylised and gestural about it. Something that doesn’t just apply to the cast but also the chorus, who multi-role by playing the Egyptian populace and the priesthood with commitment. Arias and duets are sung in fine voice, ensuring the meanings within the libretto are teased out. Much vocal gymnastics are at play here and the ensemble don’t hold back. Vocal variety is evident in range, dynamics, and texturing. Although, occasional phrases, which are sung more like in pianississimo, are drowned out by the orchestra. Only a minor comment though, when you consider how impressive it sounds when everyone sings in fortissimo. This usually happens on the King’s arrival. It’s just a gorgeous wall of sound, especially from the chorus. The English subtitles are clearly visible.
Delightfully, there is a contemporary twist to this production of Aida. This is marked in the design and costumes. There is the sweet anguish of love amid an extreme war situation, you only have to turn on the news to connect this to what is happening in the world today. It’s looking at the opera through this lens which makes the production moving and emotional. The bombardment of buildings and the beautiful fragility of love are explored when one actor wears dry clay on his hands. It slowly cracks and peels away onto the ground – symbolic in a striking manner. The King of Egypt appears to have the same status as the conductor in how this production is staged.
Joanne Parker’s constrictive, angular, and monochrome design compliments the production’s contemporary twist. The set mimics the Egyptian tomb in the story. The door frame performs as a literal and metaphorical divide between people and countries. Lighting designer, Richard Moore, has come up with a design which evokes sporadic feelings of claustrophobia. Dick Straker’s video design is gorgeously shot and aesthetically mirrors the overall design. However, on a practical note, it is difficult to define what a lot of the images are. This is because they are projected onto a screen with a big cloth thrown over it and the creases make for problematic viewing. It is most likely an intentional part of the design, but practically it didn’t work.
Verdi’s music, as performed by the Opera North Orchestra, is audibly splendid. Sir Richard Armstrong guarantees Verdi’s exotic and regal sounds are heard. The full-bodied orchestral chords to the subtly of the Violin’s pizzicatos are notably exquisite.
Opera North have made full use of the Bridgewater Hall stage in a modern interpretation of Aida taking place somewhere between the past and the present. All the while, highlighting the themes of betrayal, unrequited and romantic love. Look at what the North is producing.
Reviewed on 4 June 2019 | Image: Clive Barda