Stripped with colors and ornaments, pharaohs, hieroglyphs and the whole panoply that nourished 19th century Egyptomania, the work of Verdi Aida remains rebelliously intact. Two countries are under siege, two people from opposite sides – Egypt and Ethiopia – fatally in love. The story is old, the policy not specific. War, whether camouflaged by the imperatives of passion or religion, is always in the foreground. Verdi’s music is the compelling force, with great choruses, virtuoso solos and an orchestration of seductive but sinister detail: those serpentine low woodwind solos, the sinister low brass, the brazen and brash trumpet fanfares they embody totalitarian power.
Into this cast iron musical mould, Robert Carsen poured his molten modern set for the Royal Opera House, the first new production of the season, directed by Antonio Pappano. Egypt is alluded to summarily but purposefully in the temple-like structure of Miriam Buether’s designs: stark gray blocks interrupted only by a flash of color in the carpet or flag, or in Amneris’ favorite square suits (Agnieszka Rehlis), daughter of the king of Egypt but surely from the house of Trump. We are in a regime where the militia dominates and where the photorealistic icons of the sovereign are the only authorized decoration. Military uniforms – the costumes of Annemarie Woods – evoke the faceless extremes of war, from the khaki grayness of battle to the glory of the peaked cap of victory.
Verdi’s work, premiered in Cairo in 1871, culminates majestically in the famous triumphal march in Act 2. This is where you place the elephants if you have any; horses and lions too, if you feel like it. The challenge is how to maintain the drama after all this spectacle without it being an anticlimax. In Carsen’s staging, the spoils are not living creatures but Egypt’s own dead. The coffins are removed one by one, an ominous inversion of the usual additive process of this scene, trophy upon trophy. The second half leads to an intimate finale, with a score of orchestral subtlety and invention that points to masterpieces to come, namely Don Carlos and otello. Pappano, and the musicians of ROH, opened our ears to the genius of Verdi, through rhythm, texture, balance.
It didn’t all work out the first night. There was a capricious intonation from various sides, which will settle. Italian tenor Francesco Meli, as Egyptian war hero Radames, reminded us of the cruel difficulty of approaching the heights of Celeste Aida only a few minutes after the curtain rises. He did, however, reveal himself in the vital exchanges of love with Aida. As Ethiopian princess enslaved to the title, the Russian soprano Elena Stikhina ranged from seemingly, and sometimes actually, undernourished to gorgeous, but she is always friendly and endearing. Rehlis, the Polish mezzo-soprano making her Royal Opera debut, has a striking presence and a powerful, coagulated vocal tone, though the Italian vowels are difficult to locate. Soloman Howard’s Ramfis and Ludovic Tézier as the Ethiopian King Amonasro, both excellent singers, captured the attention with each entry. The night belonged above all to the choir. Their precision, fortissimos and thrilling whispers that the job demands, from men in particular, have made them stars.
Lest we seek to worry last week two events took the world by storm, one philosophical, the other environmental. For its annual staging, Blackheath Halls Opera Houseexemplary company with no age limit and open to all, chose Leonard Bernstein’s company Candid (book by Hugh Wheeler after Voltaire, fortunately abbreviated here). Directed by Christopher Stark, directed by Sebastian Harcombe and designed by Elliott Squire, this gallop from disillusion to hope was full of spirit and joy. If perfection is your priority, go elsewhere. If heart, soul and inspiring musical creation are more your thing, this is the place.
The alchemy resides in the union of choirs of young people and adults, of students of Trinity Labanlocal children and a pro-am orchestra, with first-class soloists. Nick Prichard, singing Candide, is one of the best tenors of the young generation, gifted with lyrics, every word clear, capable of acting, ideal in every way. Frederick Long (the hopelessly optimistic Pangloss), Sarah Pring (a wickedly funny old lady) and rising star Ellie Neat (tender and persuasive as Cunégonde) led a spirited cast that deserves all the credit. The final chorus raised the roof and the spirits, a soaring end to an emotional evening.
As part of the Southbank Centre’s season opening weekend, Manchester Collective portrayed Michael Gordon Time, a cult work from 1997 for string ensemble and electronics. With visuals by Spanish filmmaker Carlos Casas and additional new sounds from the Field Recorder Chris Watson, climate catastrophe is at the center of concerns. As Gordon’s music pulsed and shuddered in choppy, unraveling patterns, huge images flashed before our eyes: desert rocks, shrinking glaciers, an eroding East Anglian coastline, tropical rainforest shimmering. The 20 amplified players gave it their all on this tiring score, standing barefoot on a shiny stage that looked like a black oil slick. This book, noisy, sobering, vertiginous, does not offer easy conclusions. It’s also not to be forgotten, which may be the point.
Star ratings (out of five)
Manchester Collective ★★★★