Slave Morality

Slave Morality

Aida, opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson, directed by Phelim McDermott, ENO, 28th September 2017, in collaboration with the theatre company Improbable, reviewed by LESLIE JONES

Interviewed by the writer Adrian Mourby for the official programme, Phelim McDermott, director of this new production of Aida, acknowledged that the period setting therein is “a slight mash up. It’s not ancient and it’s not modern” (see ‘Mining of the Emotions’). And, he should have added, it’s confusing and it’s heteroclite. For we have soldiers in modern battle gear, brandishing automatic weapons; Radamès, decked out in a distinctly Ruritanian dress uniform, replete with gold braid; and (in Act 11, scene 2) modern, flag draped coffins containing the bodies of recently killed Egyptian soldiers, accompanied by framed photographs, evocative of burial scenes in modern day Israel. The costumes of the Egyptian priests brought to mind the head ware and the sombre suits of Ulster’s Orange Order. But we also have slave girls, and an alluring high priestess (Eleanor Dennis) dressed in what presumably is Ancient Egyptian attire. The costumes created for Aida, for the Women’s Chorus and for the pharaoh’s daughter Amneris (mezzo-soprano, Michelle De Young) were decidedly unflattering.

McDermott denies “dissing the past”. But as Philip Reed notes in the programme, the sets, the costumes and the scenario of the original production, staged in Cairo in 1871, were designed by a French Egyptologist, one Auguste Marriette, for whom authenticity was paramount. Marriette noted, for example, that “the most consistent principle of [ancient] Egyptian costume is the absence of beards”.

McDermott’s 2016 ENO production of Akhnaten, a somewhat complementary work composed by Philip Glass, was visually compelling (see ‘Behold the Sun’, QR, March 6th, 2016). Not surprisingly, he re-assembled the same core team to design the sets, costumes and lighting for Aida, namely Tom Pye, Kevin Pollard and Bruno Poet, respectively. The use of primary colours for the billowing silks and for the expanding red, then blue, then brown pyramid (possibly a symbol of the god Isis and reminiscent of the luminous red egg and the large, sun-like disc in Akhnaten) was certainly memorable.

Quarterly Review always defers to its elders and betters. We spoke briefly to the distinguished music critic Michael White in the interval. His verdict is invariably authoritative. Apropos the singing and the sets, on this occasion it was not entirely positive. And he is surely right. There were no stand out vocal performances. Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones (Radamès) resembles the late-lamented Luciano Pavarotti, but only physically. American soprano Latonia Moore (Aida) did her level best and she knows the part inside out, albeit in Italian. She received generous applause for several of her arias. And conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson shone on this, her second appearance at ENO.

In a review of La Traviata (QR, March 21, 2016), I referred to the Oedipal aspects of Alfredo Germont’s relationship with his father, Giorgio. But what, one wonders, would Freud have made of the ultimate fate of Aida and Radamès? Could being entombed alive constitute “an object of desire that beckons us”, to wit, death, because it restores the peace and perfection of the womb? (quotation from Laplanche and Pontalis, The language of psycho-analysis, page 273). Let others be the judge.

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of Quarterly Review

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