Verdi's Aida is extremely intertextual. Conditioned by the historical events surrounding its première and, as an inevitable product of nineteenth-century Orientalism, scholars have fruitfully mined it for decades for both its historical and critical significance. The new production at the Royal Albert Hall surprisingly did much of this critical lineage proud, and it was refreshing to see the opera presented in such a creative yet still traditional manner.
It's clear that director Stephen Medcalf is highly concerned with Aida's position as a modern cultural icon. The opera begins before the prelude, with silent actors on-stage reenacting the novelist Amelia Edwards's experience whilst writing her book, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. Edwards is ever-present on-stage, implying that the action is either a figment of her imagination or some sort of hyperreal projection to which she bears witness. This is a very clever means of adding an entirely new (and welcome) dimension to a very old work (though, I'm not sure she had to be always lurking in the background). This simple addition enhanced further the work's imperialistic overtones, since the presence of this British historical figure implies that we are viewing the opera through her eyes—an inevitably narrow lens.
Generally, the three large projector screens covering the organ added to the work's spectacular presentation and provided much needed atmosphere, completely lost in a production staged in the round yet so important in a work that aesthetically takes a great deal from French grand opéra. Local color in music is a perplexing topic; we speak about it as though it objectively exists and yet somehow all hear it quite differently. Aida is an opera that—because of its atmospheric je ne sais quoi—could not be effectively set in any other location except Egypt, and conductor Andrew Greenwood brought vibrancy to the score's many hues, commanding the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with an impeccable knowledge of Verdian style. At times, there were balance issues with some of the singers, but this regrettably seems to be more and more an unsolvable problem of modern productions of Verdi's operas.
One wished that Maestro Greenwood's stylistic forte had rubbed of on the singers, however, and it is safe to say that the latter two acts of the opera were significantly better than the first two. From the beginning, Marc Heller's Radamès was diction-less and had no sense of either tempo or phrase. While his voice is absolutely right for the role and is quite thrilling when he commits, the simple truth of the matter is that you need more than a big voice to sing Verdi. Interestingly, Indra Thomas's Aida had the opposite problem. Thomas is stylistically superb; her diction was spot-on, her phrasing excellent, and her sense of dramatic coloring was wonderfully effective (though I could have done with less scooping). Yet her upper range lacked the consistency of her lower and middle registers; at times, she seemed to struggle to create the support necessary for her high notes, especially the B-flats.
The two exceptions were Tiziana Carraro and David Kempster. As Amneris, Carraro was outstanding. She is a fantastic interpreter of the role; sexy with a silky yet powerful voice, walking with a truly believable swagger. But it's her singing that was really magnificent: the Judgment Scene was spine tingling, and her utter commitment to the music shown in every phrase, every word, and every crisp articulation of breathtaking lyricism. As Amonasro, Kempster was equally fantastic. He is a true Verdian baritone; remarkable phrasing, bold, and perfectly aware of both dynamics and the sheer power of his own voice.
Verdi's music is often loud, even bombastic at times. This is part of its charm. Yet this quality makes the intimate moments (which stand on their own as great music) all the more important. One must wonder why the staff at the Royal Albert Hall doesn't announce before hand that audience members must turn off their phones, refrain from coughing excessively, and, of course, be silent during performances. Perhaps then the feedback from the microphone system could've been a bit more easily forgotten.
Overall then, this production is a creative staging of an epic opera that unfortunately comes across as decidedly less than epic.