With its ancient Egyptian setting, grand choruses, triumphal marches, and melodramatic plot, Aida is a daunting prospect for any opera house to mount. It is to Opera Holland Park’s credit that they took on Verdi’s grand historic drama—surely one of their most ambitious achievements to date—and that they offered an evening that was often so good musically. It is only a shame the cast was so badly let down by Daniel Slater’s misguidedly revisionist production.

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Slater transposes the action to the present day. The Egyptians are cast as a wealthy elite, with Amneris and her father hosting an elaborate party in the Egyptology wing of a museum. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins realises this splendidly, a towering statue of the goddess Isis placed centre stage on a pedestal flanked by two statues of Anubis. A glass display cabinet contains some ancient Egyptian armour, driving the museum device home; it is a shame, as the set looks good enough that it could have sufficed for a staging actually set in Egypt. Instead, we are offered a coming together of inexplicably bellicose plutocrats in black tie snorting cocaine and commencing with an orgy as they carelessly splash dollars upon the stage.

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The Wolf of Wall Street crossed with Cleopatra and Night at the Museum? The concept is not entirely uninteresting, and the bashing of a profligate and wealthy financier class engaging in debauchery and exploiting the less advantaged is a topical favourite. Even so, this does not help the production to make any more sense dramatically. Melodramatic though it may be, Aida is about the dichotomy between the private and the public realms, and the capacity of the latter to crush the freedom of the former. That the state must ultimately kneel before the extremist decree of organised religion grants the work much contemporary resonance; it is all the more disappointing to have a contemporary staging that so little attempts to engage with any of these themes. Though it is the priesthood who ultimately rules and decides the tragic outcome of the opera, no signifier of religion is present in Slater’s production; Ramfis wears a dinner suit, as the other guests do, and might just be any other thug. Which of course he is—yet to divorce this from his role as society’s high priest is to attenuate the dramatic thrust of the work.

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Fortunately, the musical standards of the evening highlighted Opera Holland Park at its best. The music was conducted with Italianate fire by Manlio Benzi; the City of London Sinfonia instilled the sense of dynamism and engagement into the evening which kept it from floundering. A slowly wrought prelude mustered all the delicacy of the strings before setting out through all the crashing choruses and dramatic climaxes of Verdi’s score. The brass were heard to majestic effect in the triumphal march that greets Radamès’ return following his successful campaign against the Ethiopians, and the woodwinds evoked an incisive sense of urgency.

It was a shame that the direction left the scene descending into farce, the chorus forced to stumble around the stage with artifacts looted from the museum before letting loose with its various moral depravities. The party guests had by this time pillaged bits of Egyptian jewellery and weapons to complement their evening clothes—thick golden bracelets, necklaces, exotic headpieces, spears—giving one the sense once again that it was a pity the director had not elected simply to play it straight. If one shut one’s mind to the drugs, cell phones, and shabby modern dress of the captive ‘Ethiopians’—who were, after all, nothing more than the vanquished staff of the museum—one could almost remember Aida on its own terms.

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Happily, for all the cocaine and orgies and unintelligible plot devices, the chorus was impressively rousing; taken with the high musical quality of the orchestra, they brought a much needed sense of Verdi’s drama back to the performance. The grand set pieces of the opera—the King’s assigning of Radamès to being the captain of his forces, the triumphal march and parade of captives at the end of Act II—were amongst the highlights of the performance, showing off beyond any doubt just how good the forces of Opera Holland Park can be.

Neither did the soloists disappoint. The romantic triangle at the heart of the opera places lofty demands even for far larger opera houses, yet Opera Holland Park assembled a sufficiently good cast to somewhat mitigate the missteps of the staging. Aida, sung by Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, is cast as a cleaner at the museum, meekly appearing when summoned by a haughty Amneris to mop the floor. Yet such indignities were fast belied by the power of her singing; Ms. Jeffers has a clarion soprano that cut above the combined forced of orchestra and chorus to exceptional effect. ‘Ritorna vincitor’, Aida’s prayer for Radamès to return victorious even when this necessarily means the defeat of her people, fully conveyed the emotional turbulence at the heart of her character, irreconcilably torn as she is between lover, fatherland, and father.

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Her final scenes with the Radamès of Peter Auty were especially thrilling, showcasing both performers at their best. Mr. Auty’s tenor is not the most golden or Italianate, and took a little while to warm up. ‘Celeste Aida’ showed off the power in his voice more than its beauty. By the Nile Scene, however, he was entirely credible in both his passion and his torment, and his final scenes were sung with ardor and conviction.

The not always incisive direction left one less emotionally invested in the central love arc than one ought to have been. It initially did few favours to Heather Shipp’s Amneris, who comes across in the beginning as both rather nasty and needy. Ms. Shipp’s portrayal became, however, one of the highlights of the evening; the haughty disdain she exuded could be chilling, and the deftly dispatched lower register of her chest voice spat venom. Her final scene with Mr. Auty’s Radamès was utterly gripping, and succeeding in making one feel entirely sympathetic to her emotional tumult, an impressive achievement for any exponent of so disdainful a role.

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The rest of the cast was simply superb. Keel Watson made an authoritative King of Egypt, his voice rich and imperious. Graeme Broadbent was a definitive high priest Ramfis, malevolent and implacable; he commanded the stage during his scenes, the dark timbre of his bass exuding power. They made a fine foil to the Ethiopian king Amonasro, ably sung by Jonathan Veira. Members of the audience near me laughed when a captured Amonasro declares ‘What I’m wearing should tell you I defend my country and my king’, presumably as he was dressed like a harmless retiree with cardigan and flat cap. Nevertheless, Mr. Veira’s natural authority of stage presence and voice quickly made one look past his attire.

So, an overall very good cast let down by an incoherent staging. This will hardly be the first or the last time this occurs, but it did seem especially unfortunate given that the set design was otherwise impressive, and some better direction—or indeed, simply making this more of a concert performance and less one of ill-advised concept—would have significantly improved the evening. As it is, some truly exciting singing, especially in the final scenes, where the dramatic nuance and personal intensity of Verdi’s music is allowed to shine through beyond the confines of the staging, redeems the evening from being a failure.

3 stars

John E. de Wald

(Photos : Opera Holland Park’s photostream)