Fade to Grey: Aida Review

Fade to Grey: Aida Review

Khedieval Opera House, Cairo, credit Wikipedia

Aida, an opera in four acts, music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, conductor Sir Antonio Pappano, director Robert Carsen, Royal Opera, 30th September 2022, reviewed by Leslie Jones

For unrepentant ‘Remainer’ Stephen Pritchard, this “impressively radical new production” of Aida is “…a howl of protest against nationalism”. Set in a concrete bunker in a totalitarian state, it is “an Aida for the 21st century, with many pertinent things to say about oppression, and nationalism”. “We could be in Beijing, Pyongyang, Moscow,” he avers (see Bachtrack, 26 September). He evidently forgot to mention Trump’s America, that other bête noire of the liberal intelligentsia. Director Robert Carsen, in similar vein, considers Aida “a cri-de-coeur against war”. It “makes us question nationalism”, he concludes –  cue pointed comments about “Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine”. Director of Opera, Oliver Mears and Music Director Antonio Pappano are no less convinced that this new production “moves the action decisively away from pyramids and elephants (sic) towards a contemporary…and distressingly timely way to tell the story”. The awkward fact that Verdi was himself an Italian patriot is overlooked, although as Professor Roger Parker points out, “‘Va pensiero, from the Chorus of the Slaves in Nabucco, only attained “patriotic status” after Italian unification in the early 1860’s (see ‘’Va pensiero’: Biography of a Chorus’, Nabucco, Official Programme, December 2021).

By means of endless flag waving, saluting, marching of uniformed men and films of drone attacks etc., Carsen has turned Aida into a facile critique of totalitarianism and militarism. His production has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Although he contends that “theatre is not a museum”, adjectives like ‘dour’ and ‘drab’ (aka grey) constantly recur in reviews (see, for example, Erica Jeal in The Guardian). “There is no spectacle at all”, complains Richard Fairman in the Financial Times. Just as well, perhaps, given Royal Opera’s “dire financial situation”. But conductor Antonio Pappano clearly loves this work and thankfully the music and libretto remain sacrosanct. One adjacent member of the audience chose to just listen, her eyes wide shut.

There were no standout performances but the leading performers acquitted themselves well enough. Soprano Elena Stikhina (Aida) and tenor Francesco Meli (Radames) pulled out the stops in Act 3. Both characters repeatedly express the wish to die. Is being entombed alive “an object of desire that beckons because it restores the peace and perfection of the womb?” (see ‘Slave Morality’, QR September 2017). Let others be the judge.

Editorial Endnote: Aida was commissoned by the Khedive of Egypt and performed in Cairo on 24th December 1871

Opening of the mouth ceremony, Anubis presiding, credit Wikipedia

Postscript. On 5th May 2023, the night before the Coronation, QR attended the revival at Royal Opera of Robert Carsen’s production of Aida. Although the principal singers and the conductor were different (substitute Mark Elder for Antonio Pappano), Carsen’s take was as topical and as pertinent as ever. For we are dealing here with the invasion of one country, Egypt, by another, Ethiopia. Radames, appointed commander of the Egyptian army, is torn between an insensate desire for military glory and his wish to end Aida’s enslavement and return her to her homeland.

Sociologist Herbert Spencer referred to ‘rebarbarisation’, the partial return to the ‘militant’ (militaristic) social order. The director, in similar vein, gives us endless flag waving and saluting, soldiers behaving like automata, Soviet style portraits of Radames (tenor Seokjong Baek), videos of drone attacks, an incipient personality cult and a powerful display of martial arts, brilliantly synchronised with the score.

State organised religion (theocracy) played a key role in the ‘militant’ society. In the scene in which the aid of an infinite god, the creator of life, is invoked, a monotheistic conception of religion is suggested, with distinct echoes of Philip Glass’s opera Akhenaten (see ‘Behold the Sun’, Leslie Jones, QR, March 6, 2016).

In some passages, Aida (soprano Angel Blue) was upstaged by her duplicitous and hypocritical rival Amneris, played by mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, impeccably attired. And for this reviewer, Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia, as portrayed by baritone Ludovic Tézier, was another standout performance.

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of QR

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