Lots to celebrate musically, but Carsen’s Aida production at Covent Garden will split critical opinion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Aida: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 25.10.2022. (CC)

Agnieszka Rehlis (Amneris) and Elena Stikhina (Aida) © Tristram Kenton

Director – Robert Carsen
Set designer – Miriam Buether
Costume designer – Annemarie Woods
Lighting designers – Robert Carsen and Peter Van Praet
Choreographer – Rebecca Howell
Video designer – Duncan McLean

Aida – Elena Stikhina
Radames – Francesco Meli
Amneris – Agnieszka Rehlis
Amonasro – Ludovic Tézier
Ramfis – Solomon Howard
King of Egypt – In Sung Sim
Messenger – Andrés Presno
High Priestess – Francesca Chiejina

Robert Carsen’s new staging of Verdi’s Aida confounds expectation at every turn. Those who hoped for elephants were doomed from the off, these days, but Carsen takes Verdi’s most colourful, garish opera (at least in terms of spectacle) and transports it via Miriam Buether’s set designs to a nameless totalitarian state characterised by its brutalist grey walls and weapons. Greys abound; video (pretty much de rigeur in opera today) shows battle scenes, superbly constructed by Duncan McLean; the triumphal march returns the coffins of soldiers killed in fighting and the final scene is set in a military weapons silo, with the ammunition pointed squarely at the audience, threateningly (accusingly?). Politics tends to rub shoulders with love in Verdi – and how it does in this opera. The ballet scene is also performed by troops. Here, it is the militia that is very much in charge.

So, Carsen’s Aida is de-Egyptised, and very prescient in military terms. There is a prevailing oppression to the staging. Art can and should make us uncomfortable, and this certainly does. But there is something of a contrast between the somewhat objective staging and the work going on in the pit: Antonio Pappano clearly adores this score, and the Prelude to the first act was even more lovingly sculpted than in his fine recording with Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros. Pappano (pardon the pun) marshals the grand choral scenes impeccably (the army parade, for example), while finding real urgency in the orchestra which responds with its very best throughout. Pappano is a master Verdian, of that there is no doubt: the control he wrought from his players in the Act I Prelude (and, in the proto-Minimalist Prelude to the final act) was utterly remarkable – they do not sound like this for anyone else, currently, in my experience.

Robert Carsen’s Aida at Covent Garden © Tristram Kenton

That contrast between stage appearance and pit is certainly interesting, often fruitful in foregrounding the emotions we hear from the singers. Though it takes a fine cast to bring the characters alive, and this one included some fine contributions, not least Elena Stikhina’s emotionally powerful Aida. No doubting Stikhina’s wonderful technique and glorious voice; but it was the multitude of subtleties, both in acting and (especially) vocally that impressed. When she sang ‘O patria mia’ in the final act – in tandem with some superb contributions from the Royal Opera House Orchestra’s oboist – there was no doubting whatsoever the feelings were genuine. Stikhina was complemented by the magnificent Amneris of Agnieszka Rehlis. She has a real depth to her voice which seems to reflect a soul with a core of steel – no surprise that Seen and Heard International has covered her Azucena (Il trovatore) in a number of cities around Europe. She is simply magnificent, with a presence that matches the authority of her voice. Hers was a variegated Amneris, with a dynamic higher register that is positively fearsome and which one always feels is there in potential, even in pianissimo.

Ludovic Tézier as Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia and Aida’s father, was another stand-out (he also sings on Pappano’s recording of this opera, while his Sony disc of Verdi arias is simply magnificent). Certainly, this was Verdi singing at its height. Solomon Howard was a strong-voiced Ramfis, High Priest/Commander, while In Sung Kim was an imposing King of Egypt.

Which, among the ‘stars,’ leaves only one singer, the Radames, one of the great tenor roles. This was taken by Francesco Meli. He sang Radames in Dresden in March 2022 in Christian Thielemann’s first Aida (review here). His is a subtle Radames – Meli is in no way a heroic Verdi tenor. He floated his high end to ‘Celeste Aida’ most effectively, but this was not the most multi-faceted Radames, nor the strongest. I note he made a more positive impression in Dresden (sadly that livestream is not now available to check!).

Among the smaller roles, Andrés Presno was a strong Messenger, confirming a promise seen and heard recently in the Jette Parker end-of-year performance (review click here), not to mention a confident Roderigo in July’s Otello at Covent Garden.

There is a lot to celebrate here, vocally and instrumentally. The production itself will have to percolate – there is no doubt it will split critical opinion both initially and going forward. Relocation is not a problem, think of Stefan Herheim’s fascinating 2018 Glyndebourne Pellèas, literally set at Glyndebourne (it recreates the Organ Room, for example). Carsen’s Aida certainly has something to say in terms of the continuity of the military through to today’s remarkable times (although it was presumably planned pre-Ukraine), but is it any more profound than that? Time (and revivals!) will tell.

Colin Clarke

5 thoughts on “Lots to celebrate musically, but Carsen’s <i>Aida</i> production at Covent Garden will split critical opinion”

  1. ROH should be charged with obtaining money by deception with an average ticket price of £250 this production reminded me of the worst of ENO (albeit sung in ITALIAN).

    A truly dire production. I was not alone in my opinion in my row were visitors/singers from Athens. Who all thought the production dismal. Avoid at all costs …which is HIGH.

    • Well said. I often wonder if it’s a house requirement for every new production to feature Kalashnikovs.
      Love the comment about ENO productions.

    • An utterly bizarre comment. I paid £12 for my ticket (admittedly the cheapest, and tickets go up to £224, but describing far more than this as average is presumably stuff you can get away with on the internet). If you’re remotely organized getting the cheaper ones is really not that difficult.

      You can quibble with elements of the production, by all means (better to spend the money on musical elements, I’d tentatively suggest?), but this was a superbly played and conducted performance with mostly excellent singing. I can only assume opera – and music in general – is not your thing.

      Peter Grimes for £6 each was pretty remarkable. In fact, I think I can say without fear of contradiction from anyone with any judgement that this is the best value you can get for ‘anything’ in London. (One might acknowledge that the ROH has brought out the big guns and played it safe with repertoire since the post-pandemic reopening; but then I scarcely imagine that adventurous programming is a thing the original poster would respond well to in any event.)

  2. Saw the streamed version in cinema at Merseyside. I had seen Aida performed many years ago, a traditional performance then.

    You know immediately at the opening scene of this production that this is Aida but not as we know it. Totally bowled over by it. A brilliant setting in the current age. For me the high point was the march where the triumphant music contrasts with the visual display of a parade, goose-stepping military and the procession of coffins, which makes you realise how little there actually is to celebrate. Breathtaking. And it fits Verdi’s music like a glove.

    Alas, not all commentators appear to get it.

  3. I saw this livestream at Aberystwyth. I am not a fan of modernised productions. This production blew me away. The sets and costumes were understated, in some ways quite disturbing in contrast to the richness of the music and allowing it to dominate. It was an unforgettable and powerful production even more so in the climate of real war we are witnessing.

    As a traditionalist this production has made me rethink.

    Thank you to its creators.


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