Bombast and Passion but Little Subtlety in Medcalf’s Aida

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Aida : Soloists and Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrew Greenwood (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London 23.2.2012 (JPr)

New Production by Stephen Medcalf


Aida At Royal Albert Hall Photo:Tristram Kenton

In the latest typically lavish programme for these Raymond Gubbay arena operas it was a discovery to find out about Amelia Edwards, an eminent Egyptologist who was described as ‘an extraordinary woman, a true dilettante’. Her many talents included painting, singing and composing. She was a successful journalist and romantic novelist before a boat trip up the Nile in 1873 changed her life. She recorded her journey in words, sketches and watercolours which were published in a volume entitled A thousand miles up the Nile”, which became a best seller.’

Apparently when she was on the boat she liked nothing better than listening to Verdi and in fact, just a couple of years before her trip his Aida was premièred in Cairo. On entering the Royal Albert Hall fully thirty minutes before the start of the performance Amelia Edwards is seen sketching the pyramids and overseeing some people digging in the extravagant sun-bleached ruins of an ancient temple that fills the Royal Albert Hall’s arena. Long buried artefacts, a mummy and some scrolls see the light of day after several centuries and Amelia starts to imagine how life was in Ancient Egypt and becomes an ever-present figure on the periphery of the action as it plays out. I believe once this was established she really did not need to be there all the time because, though this was well handled, she became a bit of a distraction, particularly when the characters in her ‘’visions’ appeared to be singing to her rather than out to the audience.

Isabella Bywater’s very effective single set and Andrew Bridges’ stark lighting are very evocative and these are aided by projections on vast screens that cover both sides of the RAH’s organ and this brings the audience some of Amelia’s works, pyramids, a temple and the Nile, amongst other images that will be familiar to anyone who has also been on a Nile cruise. It is also used to increase the Act II ‘Triumph Scene’ – perhaps the opera’s most problematical moment – with projected images tripling what we were seeing. This would have been impressive had the spectacle been better staged. Although we of course saw the Egyptian army, people and priests, as well as the Ethiopian prisoners, it was all a bit of a mess. I could not understand quite why the soldiers should be involved in a display better suited to Ninja warriors. And why did the Ethiopians women do the Haka? I was also not sure that the brutal treatment of their prisoners was entirely necessary. The end of the opera was also perverse with Radames and Aida shown clutching each other on top of a pillar rather than entombed.

Isabella Bywater’s costumes involved a lot of white that helped to reflect the ‘heat’ of the bright lighting and there were a lot robes with cowls; one risible moment however involved Aida putting what looked like a satellite dish on Amneris’s head and perhaps Amelia Edwards was actually getting these stories of Ancient Egypt from the Discovery Channel?

Aida is essentially just a love story set against the background of Egypt’s war against Ethiopia, and although this was basically a traditional staging within this original period setting, it had a number of additional moments when it diverted from the usual narrative. The ladies of Amneris’s court clearly despise Aida, then for their pivotal Act III encounter Amonasro is in a cage and Aida is initially manacled and chained, and finally Ramfis clearly kills Aida and it is only her shade that visits Radames in his tomb. This opera is such staple fare for arena performance and I doubt whether such tinkering is really necessary when too little time was invested into the human relationship between the characters. Also most of the singers semaphored too much, arms spread wide when pleading and right hand upwards when there was any top note approaching.

Indra Thomas, who admittedly was a late replacement for a previous announced singer, is an experienced Aida but occasionally made heavy weather of the role and took a long time in the preparation for her testing moments. She struggled somewhat throughout ‘O patria mia’ and seemed self-absorbed throughout the evening – though this may be what Stephen Medcalf wanted from her. There was very little chemistry between her and Radames, the rather dour Marc Heller. He gave ‘Celeste Aida’ the full-throated assault of a Wagner tenor, very reminiscent of Kenneth Woollam in the English National Opera performances in the 1980s. Daniel Lewis Williams made the King a little too enfeebled but Stanislav Shvets was an authoritative Ramfis. Even better was David Kempster’s outstanding and suitably vengeful Amonasro; his was the evening’s finest performance and his curse was so potent that he is clearly someone who should be singing Alberich sooner rather than later. Tiziana Carraro’s Amneris began with a wobble typical of many overused Italian voices but got better and better as the evening went on and was excellent in the scenes involving confrontation, as was as, the Act IV ‘Judgment Scene’.

I must credit Bobby Aitken’s sound design for making it all seem as realistic as possible and when the singers turned their backs on (the majority of) the audience – as they too much in this staging – they really sounded as if they were singing away from us. Andrew Greenwood conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra authoritatively and stoically, keeping everything together with no shortage of bombast and passion but little subtlety, though I suspect there is little more that could be expected of them.

Finally, thank you to Raymond Gubbay for showing that surtitles can possibly work in the vast Royal Albert Hall and perhaps this is a nudge to the BBC Proms who might stop producing weighty printed librettos and adopt this system instead.

Jim Pritchard

Performances of Aida (with varying casts) continue at the Royal Albert Hall until 11 March 2012. For further information go to