United Kingdom Verdi, Aida: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Sir Richard Armstrong (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 21.5.2019. (SRT)
Director – Annabel Arden
Designs & Video direction – Joanna Parker
Lighting – Richard Moore
Aida – Alexandra Zabala
Radamès – Rafael Rojas
Amneris – Alessandra Volpe
Amonasro – Eric Greene
Ramfis – Petri Lindroos
King – Michael Druiett
On paper Opera North is one of the UK’s smaller professional companies, but they have massive ambitions, and the talent to match. Their concert stagings have made unlikely successes out of operas that are too big to squeeze onto the stages (or into the pits) or many of their regular venues, turning gargantuan pieces like Turandot, Salome or Wagner’s Ring into surprising triumphs.
Aida now joins that rank. The scale of the company’s ambition is demonstrated not only by the fact that this is one of the biggest Italian operas, but by the fact that, for the first time, they are bringing one of their concert stagings to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.
It works brilliantly. In fact, it is so dramatically involving that it makes ‘concert staging’ sound like an absurdly reductive way to describe it. The entire stage space is corralled into the service of the drama, with costumed soloists and a chorus that act from their stalls, and even the orchestra are made part of the apparatus, particularly with the extra brass for the triumph and judgement scenes.
Gone is Ancient Egypt. Instead the action takes place in the bombed-out remains of a Middle Eastern dictatorship, subtly suggested by some artistic film projections onto a ragged screen. Radamès goes into battle dressed in combats while Aida, a captured refugee from this conflict, cleans up in Amneris’s house, and her father stalks the stage like a gangster.
It is not in the least bit limiting, though. What Joanna Parker’s designs lack in concrete scenery, Annabel Arden compensates for in incisive direction of the characters. Amneris’s silky body language betrays her love for Radamès long before she admits it, while Aida is shown to be much more than just a passive victim. Ramfis booms orders from behind his laptop while the King takes selfies during the triumph scene.
It is utterly involving, and it works so well because it’s so completely grounded in the music, all of which is delivered brilliantly. Sir Richard Armstrong is no stranger to these climes from his time in charge of Scottish Opera, and he shapes Verdi’s great score with clarity and precision, together with an important sense of keeping the dramatic momentum going. The orchestra, liberated from the pit, bring unrivalled clarity to the sound picture. The strings are fragile in the prelude, silky in the Nile Act and transcendent in the final scene. Winds and harps sing as effectively as any of the vocal soloists, and the brass are hair-raising in the judgement scene. For once, the grand climax of the triumph scene carries not the slightest disappointment: everything is completely together, and the huge crest of sound fills the hall without overwhelming any of the individuals.
Alexandra Zabala’s Aida is vulnerable but powerful. Her pearly soprano crests the top notes with a gorgeous pianissimo in both of her big arias, but she also contains the dramatic power to spotlight the character’s individuality in the triumph scene. Alessandra Volpe is a fire-eating Amneris, convincing both as lover and as avenger, with a voice that cuts brilliantly through the big ensembles. Rafael Rojas’s tenor is rather blustery, but he hits all the notes and does so very effectively. Eric Greene’s Amonasro is a little fragile, but Petri Lindroos’s Ramfis and Michael Druiett’s King are thunderously effective. Lorna James deserves a special mention for making a huge amount of the part of the priestess in the consecration scene, and Warren Gillespie is an effectively characterful Messenger.
All of which makes this pretty much the finest Aida I have seen or heard live. The music and concept are both superb and the venue fits it brilliantly too, giving the whole ensemble a thorough roundedness that serves it brilliantly. This is Opera North’s first time in the Usher Hall, and it worked a treat. I very much hope they will be back!
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