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Opera North | Aida – Leeds Town Hall

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Antonio Ghislanzoni

Conductor: Sir Richard Armstrong

Director: Annabel Arden

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

At 227 in the Classic FM Hall of Fame is Aida, followed by (in brackets) “includes Grand March and Celeste Aida”. That sums up the problem with the opera: its general popularity rests on the first two of four acts and, also, to an extent, on a misconception of its true nature. What is often seen as a spectacular public opera – with a mighty army, troupes of dancers, massed trumpeters and, quite possibly, a few elephants – proceeds via a series of intensely dramatic duologues in its second half, and, as it moves towards its moving final pages, the accompaniment is no more than hushed first violins.

Staging is therefore difficult. For all but the most lavishly funded opera company with the largest acting area the Triumph Scene itself is problematic, but there is also the follow-up that the more intimate later scenes have to fit with the design and production style of the first half. What looks to be a blockbuster is really a tragic love story.

Put simply, the Ethiopians, recently defeated by the Egyptians, invade again and Radames leads a victorious army against them, but the real story is the triangle of Aida, Amneris and Radames. Aida, an Ethiopian princess captured in a previous war, is slave to the Egyptian princess Amneris. Both love Radames, he loves Aida, the King gives Amneris to him in marriage. The presence of Aida’s father, King Amonasro, as an unidentified captive, merely adds to the conflict of loyalties when the Ethiopians invade yet again – obviously it will not end happily!

Aida is clearly suited to Opera North’s developed style of concert performances. Annabel Arden’s flexible production updates matters to modern Middle East conflicts via costumes, a large tattered banner with scenes of destruction projected on it and various short imagined scenes. Some of Arden’s symbolism is a bit strained, but the overall effect is to take the glory out of war, leaving pain and suffering, even for the victors. Characters’ costumes generally place their role clearly: this Aida is without glamour; that belongs to Amneris, not her slave. The reason for the three-piece suit worn by the High Priest is less obvious.

However, though Arden’s take on the politics and morality of war says more than some fully staged productions of Aida, it’s not the main reason for the impact of the performance. The semi-staging, with the soloists mainly in a narrow strip in front of the large orchestra and chorus, enables the interplay of characters to be vivid and dynamic within a limited space whilst allowing scope for the mighty sounds of ceremony and conflict.

Under Sir Richard Armstrong the orchestra generates tremendous power and excitement alongside moments of great delicacy. The wonderfully committed chorus is stationed alongside the Town Hall organ and allowed some freedom of physical response to the unfolding action.

Alexandra Zabala (Aida) and Alessandra Volpe (Amneris) make memorable Opera North debuts. Zabala is a straightforwardly sincere Aida who encompasses everything vocally from intense attack to beautifully floated high pianissimos in her longing for her homeland; Volpe is in splendidly scenery-chewing form (even without scenery), an Amneris whose every note and every gesture is full of passion. The third member of the love triangle, Radames, gets an equally full-on reading from company favourite, Rafael Rojas, his Italianate tenor used as fearlessly as always, right from the demands of “Celeste Aida”, cruelly placed by Verdi almost before the singer has a chance to get warmed up. This Radames is also an unusually conflicted character and Rojas conveys vividly the torments of war.

Petri Lindroos’ sonorous, rock-solid bass and cool detachment make for a powerfully sinister Ramfis, if hardly your typical High Priest, and a fine trio of performances in the lower voices is completed by Michael Druiett’s King, dignified, but clearly in the power of Ramfis, and Eric Greene’s lithe and warmly human Amonasro. Two chorus members, Lorna James (Priestess) and Warren Gillespie (Messenger), make their mark in briefer appearances.

Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed

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One Comment

  1. I went to see Aida at Hull City Hall last night and it left me wondering when it was that Opera North lost touch with ordinary people. I love opera, but I’m not an intellectual. I love the music, the sheer exuberance and wonderful feeling of being immersed in a different world. I’ve been attending Opera North productions for years and used to love them – but this last night for me was the final nail in their coffin.
    This creeping need for modernising every production and putting in what to the common or garden viewer looks to me like unnecessary weirdness was at full flow last night. Ugly modern costumes, strange happenings like Ansermo having white stuff allover his hands that flaked all over the floor (what WAS that about?) just detracted from what should have been a wonderful experience. The singing and the orchestra were wonderful of course – but at the end the heartbreaking duet between Radames and Aida was ruined for me by the cold way they approached it. They didn’t touch, even try to look at each other in the darkness – completely unreal.
    I’m never going to be able to see a full staging of Aida live but a concert performance could have been nearly as good if it had used sympathetic costumes and not tried to be so damn clever. As for the programme – £5 for something completely unintelligible to the normal reader…I looked in vain for some explanation of the white hands for instance. I remember a time when the aim was to bring opera to those who wouldn’t normally go – I guess no one cares about that anymore.

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