The Royal Opera's new production of Verdi's Aida was a hotly-anticipated event, and the audience – which included Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall – was scarcely less starry than the cast.
Unfortunately, though, David McVicar's staging is not the overwhelming success that the company must have been hoping for, considering that the previous three productions were all quickly retired after a small number of performances.
McVicar, of course, has a great reputation at Covent Garden, having been responsible for excellent productions of works as diverse as The Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto and The Magic Flute, all of which have been successfully revived and met with equal critical success and audience popularity. But sadly, it's hard to see this Aida falling into the same category.
The main problem is with Jean-Marc Puissant's sets, which are so dull, gloomy and unevocative that the staging has little atmosphere. The beauty of much of the writing, such as in the sublime Nile Scene, is not reflected in the design, which is dominated by a huge wall, the base of a pyramid whose outline is raised to depict the incarceration scene, and a revolving floor. Rather than exotic, the staging has an industrial feel, with bits of scaffolding on the wall and diagonal strips of light on the wall, for instance.
The Otherness of the story is instead supplied by Moritz Junge's costume designs, which aren't especially related to the sets and have hints of different exotic civilisations from around the world. This seems an odd choice to me: why avoid Ancient Egypt and yet dress the characters in tribal costumes from other traditions? The dances are also disappointing: topless women and men in loincloths perform repetitive gestures that ought to be violent but are instead clichéd.
It's clear that McVicar has attempted to create intimacy and focus on the love triangle, and at points this works well. He's an unparalleled director when it comes to working with the singers on psychology, and there's plenty of motivation in their gestures and movements. But by attempting to ignore the ceremonial aspect of the piece, he has not quite made it work. It's a spectacular, heavily-populated opera, and there's no getting around that: you have to embrace it. Occasionally, the production team has done so, and suddenly it's engaging – in particular, when Radames makes a bold entrance in the Grand March by arriving through sliding walls and marching through the crowd, with a long train coming from his shoulders and covering the length of the stage. But on the whole, the lack of purpose, the ugliness of the sets and the clashes of style prevent this from becoming an ROH classic.
Musically, the orchestra and chorus excelled under Nicola Luisotti's baton. Although I think it could have been an ounce more exciting and an ounce more beautiful, Luisotti's reading was ideally paced and sensitive. The singers were carefully accompanied, and yet Luisotti brought through all kinds of colours: the use of the woodwinds in the Prelude, the chamber music-like string writing in Act 3, and even the balance of the different brass instruments in the third scene of Act 1, was all well judged.
More problematic was Micaela Carosi's Aida. Although she has sung this role the world over (including Barcelona and the Met), Carosi's voice sounded strained at the top and lacked the true dramatic soprano colour. Lower down she was able to be far more controlled – for instance, in ‘Presago il core' in the final scene – but the tone spread and the pitch was insecure in ‘O terra, addio', ‘Numi pieta' and ‘O patria mia'. Carosi is a touching actress and achieves genuine pathos in her performance, but she seemed ill at ease in much of this music.
Marcelo Alvarez made his debut as Radames here, and on the basis of this performance his interpretation is likely to grow into something impressive. ‘Celeste Aida' was a little tense and lacked lyrical phrasing, and in the production as a whole Radames's character was somewhat pushed into the background, but Alvarez's voice remains a very special instrument and he sang beautifully throughout.
The loudest applause of the night was saved for Marianne Cornetti's Amneris (pictured, top), and rightly so. It's amazing that through such cumbersome headdresses and make-up, Cornetti was still able to create a vivid character and present a threat to the Aida-Radames relationship. Her singing was impassioned and incisive, and she commanded the stage at several moments: highlights included the duet with Aida in Act 2, when the revolving stage was at its most effective, and the trial scene, which drew heavy cheers from the audience.
For my taste, Marco Vratogna was too lightweight and low-key for Amonasro – I remember Sherrill Milnes making far more of the part at the Met many years ago – but Giacomo Prestia's impressively large bass brought gravitas to the role of Ramfis, in spite of some uneven tuning. Jette Parker Principal Ji-Min Park and Young Artist Elisabeth Meister provided some of the best singing of the evening as the Messenger and High Priestess, respectively, and veteran Robert Lloyd was as reliable as ever as the aged King.
Thanks to Luisotti's masterful guidance this performance had much to offer, but the production suggests that the curse of Aida might still be overshadowing Covent Garden.
Photo Credit: Bill Cooper