Aida – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Composer: Guiseppe Verdi

Libretto: Antonio Ghislanzoni

Director: Annabel Arden

Conductor: Sir Richard Armstrong

Reviewer: Tim Harding

It’s easy to think of Verdi’s Aida in grandiose terms: extravagant sets, large choruses of soldiers and priests, dancers, horses and chariots.  But is that what this opera is all about?  True, the Triumphal March in Act 2 traditionally contains all these elements, but there is so much that is personal and intimate in this tale of a doomed love triangle in ancient Egypt.

In Annabel Arden’s concert staging for Opera North, designed by Joanne Parker, gone are the lavish sets and trappings of vulgarity, replaced by a bare strip of land, metal table and stools, sombre contemporary costumes that place us in the middle of some recent conflict. But the essence of the story is even more to the fore.

Aida, the Ethiopian princess, captured in a previous conflict, is now slave to Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt.  Both women love Radamès, the Captain of the Egyptian Army, about to launch another attack on Aida’s homeland.   Verdi’s opera focusses much of its action on the interaction and relationships between these three characters.

What happens in Arden’s modern reimagining is that we are enveloped even more in the personal tragedy, with just the protagonists directly in front of us (and in front of the magnificent Opera North orchestra) with the large chorus kept commenting on the action from a distance, rather in the manner of a Greek, rather than Egyptian, chorus.

This immediacy encourages the performers to greater depths of personal intimacy in their performances that other, more traditional staging may allow. Fortunately Opera North has been able to put together a truly international cast that rises magnificently to the challenge.

Leading the cast, Alexandra Zabala’s Aida, dressed in combat trousers and t-shirt, displays so much humanity, her voice effortlessly carrying across the large expanse of Symphony Hall.  Zabala possesses a pianissimo of exquisite beauty, but her anger with her father Amonasro (a very noble Eric Greene) in Act 3 is palpable and at times guttural in its intensity.

Alessandra Volpe’s Amneris is seductive and manipulative, her powerful mezzo colouring her machinations perfectly.  Alongside Petri Lindroos’ magnificently resonant Ramfis we are given a well-drawn pair of dark characters.

Opera North favourite Rafael Rojas is a distinctly darker Radamès than one often sees.  Arden’s direction sees him returning from battle during the Triumphant March looking a beaten man.  War has taken its toll.  But not on Rojas’ ringing tenor, which matches the technical challenges of Verdi’s dramatic score.

The elegant Michael Druiett rounds out the exceptional cast as the King of Egypt, with support from company members Warren Gillespie and Lorna James in supporting roles.

The Opera North Chorus and Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, are in blistering form throughout.   This is a production that really does prove that, even with an epic tale such as Aida, when the music and performances are this good, less staging really is more.

Reviewed on 10 June 2019 and on tour  | Image: Clive Barda

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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