The fatal flaw of English National Opera's new production of Verdi's Aida is the way in which Jo Davies (director) and Edward Gardner (conductor) have decided to emphasise the work's intimate aspects at the expense of its grandeur.
This approach is a complete miscalculation of the way the opera is constructed. A central Verdian aesthetic throughout his career was contrast: using light music to make tragedy seem darker, using spectacle to intensify personal stories. By stripping away the grand gestures, Davies and Gardner in fact lose the opportunity to colour the human drama at the heart of Aida and make the experience extremely unengaging.
The only thing which Davies seems to have to say about the opera is that it is about a love triangle, something which the scenery indicates frequently through the use of sliding curtains and walls in triangular shapes. Other than this, the singers don't seem to have been directed at all and resort to clichéd arm and hand movements in every scene. The Grand March is far from grand, not helped by the fact that there are hardly any prisoners - surely if there is no big conflict between the Ethiopians and Egyptians going on in the background, there's no motivation for the intimate drama in the foreground either. And the ballet (choreography by Jonathan Lunn) caused nothing but laughter from the people sitting around me: some of the dancers were dressed like animals and made the kind of movements used by the rats in The Nutcracker (or Cats, according to my neighbour), while acrobats walked on dressed in 1930s bathing costumes for reasons which completely escape me.
In fact, it was remarkable how evocative Robert Wilson's much-derided La Monnaie/ Covent Garden production of the opera seemed by comparison; at least Wilson produced tranquillity in the Nile Scene. In ENO's production, this scene ended with more laughter on the first night when Amneris' soldiers arrived with 'weapons' resembling giant spillikins, waited until Aida and Amonasro had safely fled then decided to run half-heartedly after them. What happened to spears? And why did none of them challenge Radames at this point?
Even the powerful Judgement Scene is bungled. Davies places it onstage behind a wall with slatted holes in it so that we can observe what's happening, with Amneris in front of it. However, the whole point of this scene is that Amneris is locked claustrophobically away and only hears the judgement taking place offstage. Again, the intention to emphasise the private emotions of Aida is undermined by the flaccid staging of the grand elements. The emergence of Radames from the sky in some kind of elevator/cage on the end of a rope was the beginning of a dramaturgically bungled final scene in which Amneris' placing on the stage in relation to Aida and Radames made little sense.
And for goodness' sake, whatever Davies wants to think, this really is grand opéra (as Roger Parker says from the offset in his programme note). Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording of the opera also takes the view that it's a chamber piece, but such an idea is unconvincing and not upheld by the score or libretto. Verdi went to great lengths to ensure that the staging of the early productions could live up to his elaborate intentions, as well as insisting on a good sized chorus. Unfortunately, this production does not size up on either front.
It's not helped by the designer, Zandra Rhodes, who impedes the singers' facial gestures by covering them with ridiculous makeup, veils (in the case of Aida, who looked like a belly dancer out of an old James Bond film) and facial hair (poor Radames had a horrible false beard stuck onto the end of his chin). As for the designs, I would find it remarkable that such broadly painted, appallingly am-dram quality sets were coming from a British fashion icon were it not for the knowledge that Rhodes has no theatrical pedigree. She simply doesn't know how to provide a set on which an opera can be staged with any sense of drama, and having her pair up with a director who's never been in charge of a production of an opera in a major opera house before has inevitably reaped disaster. There's absolutely no excuse for staging Verdi badly, either, because the disposizione sceniche (original production manuals) from the composer's own time tell a director how to produce the opera with an understanding of how musical gestures are meant to be matched to dramatic gestures such as entrances and exits. While there's very little to offend in this production - it plays the opera in Ancient Egypt and there's no controversy whatsoever - it is so unassertive that it makes one of the most exciting operas ever written extremely bland.
I do see it being revived, however, and since for me the biggest disaster of the evening was the conducting of Edward Gardner, ENO's new Music Director, I wondered if a more compelling reading might have flattered the production a little more. As one of my colleagues pointed out, it was a good example of how poor conducting can undermine an entire performance. It's amazing that most of the singers managed to sing with feeling and in tune, considering the erratic speeds and lack of focus offered by Gardner in the pit. I was worried from the word go: the Prelude is marked from ppp (extremely quiet) to ff (very loud) in the score, but the whole thing was delivered mp (moderately quiet) - and this in spite of the fact that Verdi said throughout his career that he exaggerated dynamic markings in his scores in an attempt to force musicians to take notice of them! On the whole, speeds were too slow and dynamics were too quiet. The great choral number in the second scene of Act I, for instance, plodded along instead of marching forth with spirit, and the chorus was seriously underpowered. However, when it came to the Triumphal Scene, Gardner suddenly surged forward with flailing hands and arms (evidently feeling the performance was flagging) and enforced a tempo that was so fast that the chorus and orchestra struggled to keep up. This was highlighted by the fact that when the difficult A flat major onstage trumpet section was reached, the tempo sagged because it was unrealistic to perform it so quickly. The most taxing part of the opera for the conductor is the third act, where Verdi evokes some extraordinary colours in the music. Once the Aida-Radames duet had begun, Gardner started thrashing desperately and pushed the speed far too hard, not allowing the singers to breathe, and continued in that vein until the end of the act. And the Judgement Scene lacked the stabbing intensity that the score invites - indeed, the entire opera was curiously unexciting.
Making her debut in the title role, Claire Rutter was perhaps a lighter-voiced Aida than is sometimes the case but she always used her instrument to good effect. In particular, her control over her voice was impressive, maintaining the tuning even in the highest register and producing some lovely legato for this lyrical role. On the dramatic side of things John Hudson seemed a little hampered by his ridiculous costume and makeup, but I was impressed by how he reined in his considerable vocal powers and opted instead for subtlety and sweetness, even in the romanza of the opening scene. For me, the only times when the production briefly came alive were in the duets between these two singers, who provided a degree of dramatic tension on their own. Their empathetical onstage relationship enabled more flexibility with the music, too, and they managed to stay in tune and time during the very high endings to their duets in the third and fourth acts.
The singer with the greatest diction was Iain Paterson, who overcame his Red Indian-style costume and makeup as best he could, and Jane Dutton provided a few fireworks as a feisty Amneris, though she tired towards the end. Veteran Gwynne Howell showed gravitas as the King, but he was horribly out of tune quite often, and Brindley Sherratt once more sounded out of sorts as Ramfis (after a surprisingly low-key Semele last week as well). Some of the most powerful singing of the evening came from the wonderful Sarah-Jane Davies as the offstage High Priestess. Here was a sense of Verdian line and drama, and she even seemed to project more strongly offstage than the weak-sounding onstage chorus (supposedly enhanced in numbers). I'm afraid that although these performances are dedicated to the late Edmund Tracey, his translation seemed to me one of the weakest aspects of the production, its banal text sometimes rendering the music feeble (even 'Goddess Aida' strikes me as an unsatisfactory rendering of 'Celeste Aida'). I know I'm in the minority, but I much preferred the modern translation of Sally Potter's Carmen, which matched the text to today's audience rather than resorting to stilted clichés.
It's possible that the musical performance will gain in strength over the course of the run, and not everyone will be as concerned by the unchallenging production as I was. But having seen this opera in various productions around the world, I found ENO's new version deeply unmoving.
Photo credit: ENO and Tristram Kenton
Read our interview with soprano Claire Rutter and tenor John Hudson about this production here.