Billy Allen reviews Verdi’s Aida at ENO
A number of years ago, I asked my maths teacher, “What is the best beginner’s opera?” I felt confident of a sagacious reply; she was a rare, realised example of one of those Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” characters, what you might call a ‘poly-math’ teacher without all the hyperbole of fiction. She said to me, “Aida”. When I asked why, she said, “Stay away from Wagner, stay away from all that. Aida’s the best – it’s all rumpety pumpety: boom-di-di-boom-di-di-boom”. At the time, I found it hilariously silly. But having watched ENO’s new production of Aida a few days ago, its first since 2008, I find it a strangely apt benchmark to measure what I consider to be a successful, fresh and exciting new iteration of Verdi’s grand opera.
Director Phelim McDermott has abandoned the pretension of time-setting. This is much in line with current trends of the stage. Opera has had the frustrating tendency to hark back to the ‘good old days’ (which weren’t, we admit, quite so good) of Victorianism, limiting the palette of visual experience to a kind of stuffy elitism. The ENO, instead, makes all its dazzling costumes and colour a myriad of images from old to new. The Triumphal March of Aida’s hero, Radames, involving the peak of Verdi’s powers of musical panache, was an exciting procession of barefooted Egyptians, combined with the reminders of the brutality of gothic coffin bearers and paramilitary weapon bearers. Some have called it convoluted and a messy slapdash of themes – but this overlooks the liberating power of modernity, its free expression and complexity.
The musicality is likewise to be admired, although, as with many English translations of Italian Operas, the diction of the performers is sometimes unclear – the question one shouldn’t have to ask is, “Why must I depend on surtitles if the whole thing is in English anyway?” Gweneth-Ann Rand is capable as Aida, the captive of a fiercely militant Egypt, but the real female star is Michelle DeYoung as Amneris, who conveys the musical array of emotion from spoilt princess daughter to broken, unrequited lover of Radames. The classic scenes are kept classic; there is a paring down at the right moments and it creates a welcome sense of intimacy.
Whenever I see opera, I am hopelessly reminded of my former teacher’s bizarre Aidan image: the onomatopoeic assessment of “boom-di-di-boom” which seems to be damning Verdi with faint praise. That assessment, nonetheless, was never accompanied, as is the case with so many critics, with the ‘assent [of] civil leer’ – and that makes all the difference. Verdi would have appreciated the distinction, I think. He would have preferred to see in his audiences a sort of uncouth catharsis of passion and energy, rather than the manufactured correctness of some lofty, intellectual critique. The ENO’s Aida knows this – and so its musical drama unravels in rollicking fashion, with little care for continuity and much more sensitivity to expression and emotive power. It’s to its credit.
Featured image credit: Tristam Kenton