The triumphal procession is the bench mark by which audiences judge a production of Verdi’s Aida, and it’s not surprising that they are often disappointed. Verdi’s homage to the East in the 1871 Cairo premiere began the long tradition of exotic spectacle, with occasional additions from the zoo. Coming to present time, the elephant is yesterday’s beast and the fact that Verdi specifically placed the love triangle of the plot in the middle of a war between Egypt and Ethiopia doesn’t weigh heavily on a creative director.
Canadian Robert Carsen’s long awaited new production of Aida, opening after a delay of two years caused by the pandemic, has decidedly not followed the original script. There is a war going on and the lovers are caught in the middle of it. But while Aida is nominally the captured daughter of the King of Ethiopia and slave to the King of Egypt’s daughter Amneris, and Radames is Captain of the Egyptian Guards, the background is modelled on that of a present day military and totalitarian state. A combination of high-peaked hats and military uniforms offer comparison with events seen nowadays on television from North Korea, China or Russia in our uneasy world.
Core of the production is the triumphal procession. Carsen draws inspiration from an original photograph of Chinese soldiers accompanying the coffins of soldiers killed in the Korean War. Here, soldiers bear the coffins of their dead comrades across the stage in orderly file, while the Orchestra under the baton of Antonio Pappano plays the insidiously emphatic theme. It takes a moment to realise these neat boxes are, curiously, part of the triumphs of war.
Designer Miriam Buether’s grey block set and the dim lighting (by Carsen and Peter van Praet) have a generally lowering effect on the spirits so one relies on the compensation of the music, with Antonio Pappano’s magnificent conducting of the Orchestra and the Royal Opera Chorus in peak condition. Tenor Francesco Meli as Radames scored a hit with the first tenor hurdle of “Celeste Aida” but was later serviceable rather than thrilling. Russian soprano Elena Stikhina is a touching Aida and Polish mezzo Agnieszka Rehlis storms nicely as Amneris. There’s powerful stuff from American bass Solomon Howard too as a resounding High Priest Ramfis, condemning Radames to entombment for betraying his country. The actual tomb resembles a bombed out building, and mortar bombs are stacked either side of the stage. Not an exhilarating evening, but then that was not the intention.
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: Robert Carsen
Set designer: Miriam Buether
Costume designer: AnneMarie Woods
Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet
Choreographer: Rebecca Howell
Video Designer: Duncan McLean
Chorus Director: William Spaulding
Production Pictures: Tristram Kenton