Royal Opera House 2023 Review: Aida
Robert Carsen’s contemporary vision is starkly effective in its first revivalBy Benjamin Poore
(Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Robert Carsen’s new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” opened at the Royal Opera House back in the autumn; now it is receiving its first revival as the 2022-23 season begins to wind up for the year. First time round it was conducted by Antonio Pappano; this time an equally distinguished British institution takes the musical reins in the form of Mark Elder; both find themselves soon moving on – Pappano from the ROH, and Elder from the Hallé in Manchester – after distinguished tenures at both bases.
“Aida” also began Verdi’s victory lap, inaugurating in 1871 a triumphant late period culminating in the “Requiem,” “Otello,” and “Falstaff.” As one of the most famous pieces in the repertory there’s an awful lot of baggage: apocryphal tales of elephants onstage, suffocating Cecille B. DeMille swords-and-sandals spectacle, and cringeworthy Orientalism, helpfully unpacked in a brilliant essay on the opera by the late Edward Said.
Sweeping it All Aside
Carsen sweeps it all aside in this stark, contemporary vision of the piece, which despite its slightly wearying design arrives smartly at the dramatic nexus of Verdi’s grand operas: love and politics failing to add up, and a sense of horror about what people in love with war will do to each other. His production replaces that of David McVicar, which was notable for its gory procession in Act two, putting in its place something more abstract and chilling.
No pyramids, no sand: Carsen’s production, with sets by Miriam Buether and immaculate costumes by Annemarie Woods, draws its inspiration from the military pageantry of North Korea, China, Russia, and the United States; sets evoke brutalist classicism, the odd admixture that defined the institutional architecture of postwar militarism (explored thoroughly in an excellent program essay by Owen Hatherley).
Ramfis and his acolytes are no longer mystics but senior military staff. The temple – spare wooden benches and gray walls like one of Le Corbusier’s chapels – has no religious iconography that motivates this society’s military purpose, save a few flags. It is war, duty, sacrifice themselves that are sacralized, as the chorus hold their assault rifles aloft as if divinely blessed. The sets are shaped so as to feel both claustrophobic and imposing. Amonasro, leader of the Ethiopians, is cast in Act three as a paramilitary guerrilla, as if to suggest myriad recent contemporary global insurgent wars, though his ruthlessness with Aida suggests doesn’t prompt us to feel that much sympathy for the wretched of the earth.
It’s not a production built on traditional spectacle, which can be both frustrating and clarifying. The ballet sequences are a mixed affair. At the top of Act two Amneris’ servants are given little more to do than extravagantly and mechanically set a dinner table, at which no one ever actually sits down to eat. The final scene takes place in a sort of weapons storage facility, which is oddly lit with a rather muddy yellow light that doesn’t capture either transcendental reconciliation to the heroes’ fate nor the score’s final invocation, perhaps hopeful, of “pace.”
The triumphal procession itself is much more successful: there is dancing from an athletic group of commandos who crawl, fight, and leap about in choreography from the sorts of propaganda videos that come out of Putin’s Russia. And rather than the spoils of war it is the fallen who are honored, their coffins draped with flags then carried – much too quickly! – offstage. On the back wall of the stage we see footage of conflict: the chilling god eye’s view of a drone, at first, and then increasingly pornographic footage of tanks, artillery, explosions, and so on, as the Act reaches its climax. As a kind of anti-spectacle it is desensitizing and distinctive, even if the overall look is a bit one note (that’s totalitarianism for you, I suppose).
Visual interest comes from patterns of uniforms and bodies arrayed en masse, and their (mostly) synchronized salutes and processions, which would have even more impact if they were sharper and crisper. Even the violence of the piece is banal – Radamès is condemned by priests armed with discrete black folders and pens for signatures; the ROH chorus is breathtakingly cold in their condemnation and all the more terrifying for it.
Covent Garden Favorites
The cast sees several figures return from the first time round, and some Covent Garden favorites return. Ludovic Tézier and Soloman Howard reprise Amonasro and Ramfis respectively. The latter was granite-like voice as a cold, unsentimental fanatic in a chilling characterization; his attachment to duty is quite different to Radamès, who is a romantic heart – Howard’s Ramfis was all dead-eyed resolve and sense of destiny. His accusatory cries of “Radamès” in the trial sequence were cavernous.
Tézier’s Amonasro turned several brilliant vocal tricks in a thrilling Act three scene with his daughter, emotionally volatile and charismatic (a well-drawn contrast with Howard’s stentorian presence). A melting legato took over to plead on behalf of his ruined country with Aida; elsewhere he rasped with frustration and despair, as well as showing a steely power in the top notes that marked him out as leader for whom his people would give their lives.
Angel Blue took on the title role of Aida. Vocally there was a bright, gilded edge to the sound; this brought an urgency and intensity to the character, and a palpable sense of desperation. It also meant that Blue had little difficulty clearing the orchestra in the biggest climaxes, even if there were fewer colors and shades available above the stave. The velvety textures and muted colors of her middle register were thoroughly absorbing in more inward moments, especially when joined with Blue’s luxurious portamento. In the very highest reaches her vibrato veered a little wide, and intonation lost its focus as a result. But such foibles aside there were many standout moments. Act three’s “O patria mia” sequence showed glorious musical and dramatic range, as well as the limpid ensuing duet with Radamès.
SeokJong Baek’s Radamès also had no trouble being heard. The lyric qualities of the voice took a while to engage – the first rising phrases of “Celeste Aida” could’ve been better oiled and saw a couple of overexposed vowels – but what emerged was power tempered and sustained by committed legato singing. But the warmth and tenderness of the final scene suggested a dramatic journey from the impetuosity of Act one through the anguished conflict of Act three into reconciliation.
Elīna Garanča delivered a show-stealing Amneris, returning to Covent Garden after her thrilling vocal partnership with SeokJong Baek in Richard Jones’ uneven “Samson et Dalila” last season. Her Act four melt-down was electrifying; her top notes are as bronzed as ever – a fine complement to Angel Blue’s more steely sound. Her middle and lower register, especially in the Act two duet with Aida, had a kind of wounded gravitas; it is a rounded and hugely involving portrayal.
Plenty of opportunities for the Chorus of the Royal Opera House to shine in this grand spectacle, which they did (notwithstanding a temporary disagreement with Elder about tempo in Act two, which will presumably iron itself out). Nothing is more exciting than quiet singing – the Act one scene in the temple saw superlative, feather-soft singing from the men of the chorus, the sound veiled and blooming. It was an unearthly moment of beauty that hinted at some residual humanity hidden behind the bellicose world of the opera.
Mark Elder’s conducting in Act three gave us the most thrilling orchestral playing of the evening, reminding us why his appearances at Covent Garden are so treasured, as he urged the brass and strings to explosive, warlike climaxes. Superb clarinet and flute solos elsewhere too.