Friday 29 September 2017

Strong singing and stage spectacle: ENO's new Aida

Verdi: Aida - English National Opera - Gwyn Hughes Jones, Robert Winslade Anderson, Eleanor Dennis (photo Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Aida - English National Opera - Gwyn Hughes Jones, Robert Winslade Anderson, Eleanor Dennis (photo Tristram Kenton)
Verdi Aida; Latonia Moore, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Michelle DeYoung, Musa Ngqungwana, dir: Phelim McDermott, cond: Keri-Lynn Wilson; English National Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 29 2017 Star rating: 4.5
A spectacular new production which benefits from some superb singing

Verdi: Aida - English National Opera - Gwyn Hughes Jones, Latonia Moore (photo Tristram Kenton)
Gwyn Hughes Jones, Latonia Moore (photo Tristram Kenton)
Verdi's Aida can be a notorious problem opera both for directors and for casting directors with, I suspect, a high failure rate for productions. English National Opera's previous production (Jo Davies' 2007) was notable for Zandra Rhodes designs more than anything else, so there was great interest in the opening night of ENO's 2017/18 season on Thursday 28 September 2017, with the new production by Phelim McDermott (artistic director of Improbable). Tom Pye designed the sets, with costumes by Kevin Pollard, lighting by Bruno Poet, and there was a strong cast which caused quite a bit of anticipation in itself, with Latonia Moore as Aida, Michelle DeYoung as Amneris, Gwyn Hughes Jones as Radames, Musa Ngqungwana as Amonasro, Robert Winslade Anderson (replacing an ailing Brindley Sherratt) as Ramfis. Keri-Lynn Wilson, who created a strong impression when she conducted Puccini's Girl of the Golden West at ENO (see my review), conducted.

In addition to the large chorus, there was a skills ensemble based on the female-led theatre company Mimbre, with Lina Johanssen as movement director, Basil Twist as silk effects choreographer and Elaine Tyler-Hall responsible for chorus movement.

Verdi: Aida - English National Opera - Michelle DeYoung (photo Tristram Kenton)
Michelle DeYoung (photo Tristram Kenton)
Whilst there were Egyptian influences in the designs, the opera was set in its own world with Pye's simple but effective sets using a combination of massive objects including skewed pyramids. These formed an effective backdrop for Pollard's spectacular costumes and the striking theatrical effects. Pollard's costuming was very much a mash-up, with Aida (Latonia Moore) in vaguely African ensemble, and Amneris (Michelle DeYoung) in a series of overly spectacular gowns, some rather unflattering. Male attire was based in late 19th century military formal, but with exotic additions, whilst the female chorus was highly exotic, yet based around the 19th century gown. The result was eclectic, and in the Act Two finale, the chorus rather looked as if they had wandered in from one of those spectacular late Victorian fancy dress balls.

Pye and his team did not shy away from the fact that movement was a big feature of this opera. Aida is in many ways one of Verdi's most French-influenced operas with its interaction of personal tragedy, public triumph, intimate scenes and large scale dance sequences. The Act One scene in the temple was truly spectacular, and the Act Two triumph scene was finely orchestrated giving us a series of vivid tableaux, based around a ceremony for bringing home the bodies after the war. But in this scene Pye could not disguise the weak dramaturgy of the long dance sequence, and given that it is routine to cut Verdi's ballet sequences in Don Carlos, and never to perform the French version of Il Trovatore, I do wonder at directors including all of the dance movements in this scene.

And what of the singing? Well the cast was finely balanced, and probably as good as you are going to get in late Verdi today. Latonia Moore made a simply spectacular Aida.

Verdi: Aida - English National Opera - Musa Ngqungwana, Latonia Moore (photo Tristram Kenton)
Musa Ngqungwana, Latonia Moore (photo Tristram Kenton)
Moore had the technique to cope with the difficult Nile scene with its unaccompanied writing and high pianissimos, yet the power to deal with the role's dramatic requirement. Most importantly she sang with a lovely flexibility and warmth, which really made us care. This Aida was the focus of our attention, and rightly the centre of the drama. She was well partnered by the Radames of Gwyn Hughes Jones. After a slightly stiff start in his opening aria, he developed into a strong Radames with the final acts being notably dramatically intense. Hughes Jones has a lithe voice, which he uses with elegance, rather than a big brash Italianate sound, yet it has an admirably old-fashioned cast about it so that he combines flexibility with focussed power. Michelle DeYoung's Amneris took some time to develop, though in the early scenes she certainly was not helped by her costumes. At first she seemed a bit stiff, and rather too much the plummy princess standing on her honour.  Vocally the performance was a bit mixed, and certainly not helped by some rather strange vowels, which lacked clarity. It was only in the last act that her performance developed real power. She never chewed the scenery like a traditional Amenris and perhaps this led to the stiffness.

All three singers were not helped by the decision to use the scrim for the all important intimate scenes in Acts One and Two. Granted, the settings looked striking in an abstract way, but McDermott and Pye simple failed to create real context for these scenes and fell into the trap, common in Aida productions, of seeming to be more concerned for the logistics of the two spectacular (but dramatically less important) scenes. Michelle DeYoung's Amneris simply failed to register strongly enough here, and it took Hughes Jones some time to develop dramatic momentum. It was only Latonia Moore who showed how it was done, popping out in front of the scrim singing her aria and really making us care for this woman.

Verdi: Aida - English National Opera - Robert Winslade Anderson, Michelle DeYoung (photo Tristram Kenton)
Robert Winslade Anderson, Michelle DeYoung (photo Tristram Kenton)
This lack of context is important, with the raiding the dressing up box nature of the costuming we lacked a secure idea of who these people were. Only at the end of Act Two, when Musa Ngqungwana's fierce and intense Amonasro appeared did the drama really take off, and Act Three was simply gripping and made up for the lack of dramatic impetus in the first half. The settings for Act Four required some pauses for scene changes, but the highly effective multi-level set at the end really fulfilled Verdi's requirements, and allowed us to concentrate on the truly glorious duet from Moore and Hughes, and the the dramatically credible DeYoung.

Overall the production seemed a bit unfocussed, yet spectacular, and I hope it gets a revival so that McDermott and Pye can tweak things a little. One aspect puzzled me, with the neo-British Raj style military costuming for the men, having the Egyptians as mainly white, whilst Aida and her father were singers of colour, rather led me to expect a greater exploration of the possibilities of Aida's relevance to colonialism, but this never happened.

Matthew Best made a strong, if understated Pharaoh, and Robert Winslade Anderson made a good impression as Ramfis, a role that he was not expected to sing until 11 October. Eleanor Dennis and David Webb completed the cast as the High Priestess and messenger.

The chorus was on very strong form, not just singing lustily but going some way towards making us care about these people, particularly in the section of the Triumph scene where the bodies of the slain were brought back and remembered. The skills ensemble went far beyond entertaining, and were central to the look of the piece. It was a very modern solution, but having Aida without a dance troupe of some sort is a non-starter, and her the skills ensemble made the transition into being part of the drama.

The opera was sung in Edmund Tracey's translation which was originally created for the 1979 ENO production  (directed by John Copley, spectacular sets by Stefanos Lazaridis). It has not aged well, and came over as rather plain and unpoetic.

Keri-Lynn Wilson once again impressed in the Italian repertory, drawing fine and sophisticated playing from the ENO Orchestra, whilst never losing the grandeur of the piece. I  liked her pacing, quite brisk at times and not very indulgent, yet flexible enough in the crucial scenes so that you felt Latonia Moore and Gwyn Hughes Jones seemed to have all the time in the world.

Verdi: Aida - English National Opera - Gwyn Hughes Jones  (photo Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Aida - English National Opera - Gwyn Hughes Jones  (photo Tristram Kenton)
This was a long evening, starting late and having significant pauses between some scenes, and it really needs to bed in and develop a faster momentum with shorter gaps so that the piece's drama can come over. For all its French-inspired grandeur, Aida is a remarkably concentrated opera (around 2 hours 20 minutes of music) and pacing of the scenes really helps.

At the end of October a new Aida (Morenike Fadayami) and Amneris (Dana Beth Miller) take over, and it will certainly be interesting to see and hear how the production develops.

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