ENO has revived its new production of Aida less than a year after it opened. With no change in the principal roles, it's still in many ways a solid show and one that in these straitened times is proving a welcome box-office hit.
One of the main selling points of Jo Davies's production is the colourful set and costumes by fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. Yet while it's difficult to deny the exuberance of much that we see on on stage in the early acts, it's actually in Act Four, when the colours are more subdued and the concept more sharply focussed, that the drama and lyricism come across best. The first act, in particular, suffers from an imbalance between the colour and ideas contained within the designs and the minimal direction of the singers. While the pillars and backdrops are busy and vibrant, the stage itself is remarkably bare and the cast are left with few options besides the basic stand-and-deliver approach we thought the London opera stage had long since left behind. What one imagines was a tactic envisaged to give the drama an uncluttered directness – there's a geometric simplicity in the way the characters are made to move around the stage that finds its corollary in the motif of the pyramid/triangle that recurs in the designs – yields results that are too often static and uninvolving.
Rhodes's designs situate the whole drama in a garish version of Ancient Egypt that bears some relation to the real thing, as selected illustrations in the programme demonstrate, but is let down by execution that, by accident or design, is too often reminiscent of a school play or an Egyptian themed Vegas casino. And in some cases, the designs are distracting. I wondered whether the elongated figure that bends itself uncomfortably over the large doorway in the second scene had a precedent in Egyptian art, for example, and found the pantomime palm tree in Act Three undermined the seriousness of the drama. That is where the problem ultimately lies: the bright and care-free aesthetic that informs the production is fundamentally at odds with the work; Verdi's carefully created contrasts between the personal and the political, and his use of light and shade are all but lost in the glare.
Musically, the big choruses delivered some thrills but the Triumph Scene still seems strangely unimpressive, the ingenious elephant puppet that crowns it notwithstanding. There's some originality in the choreography, but the dancers are dressed in costumes that bear little relevance to what's going on. The crop of prisoners is disappointingly measly and there's a strong whiff of unreconstructed colonial nostalgia in the Ethiopians' Zulu-like costumes and wigs. The relative simplicity of the sets in the final act, particularly the way the triangle encloses Aida and Radames during their last duet, is a welcome contrast, but there's often a struggle to engage with the drama that precedes it.
The cast, with a few minor changes, is the same as that which opened the production a little less than a year ago. Claire Rutter's Aida is an intelligently drawn portrayal and her voice, probably half a size smaller than is ideal in the role, is employed with sweetness and elegance. Similarly, John Hudson's Radames lacks squillo in the voice but still delivers an extremely well-prepared and solid account of the role. Both singers tried hard to inject a bit of passion into their scenes despite the lack of direction, but were ultimately at their best in a tender and moving account of the final duet. As Amneris, Jane Dutton sometimes struggled to bring fire to her interpretation in the context of the production but rose to dramatic heights in the great Judgement Scene.
Other cast members familiar from the first night were Iain Paterson's excellently sung and enunciated Amonasro – consistently undermined, unfortunately, by his pantomime costume – and Sarah-Jane Davies, who had no such impediment in the off-stage role of High Priestess. Gwynne Howell, celebrating his fortieth anniversary with ENO in this production, was if anything more fresh-sounding and secure as the King than he was a year ago. Matthew Best, new to the cast, was an authoritative and imposing Ramfis.
The most significant change, however, was in the pit. Making his ENO debut was conductor Gérard Korsten, taking over the reins in this revival from ENO's Music Director Edward Gardner, who had conducted the premiere. Although Korsten's reading of the score was not always taut and the orchestra, especially the brass, didn't really get going until half way through the first act, I found his conducting more convincing than Gardner, who had undermined the dramatic effect of certain key scenes with his extremes of tempo last year. So, even if there was still a lack of rubato in the big duet between Radames and Aida in Act Three, Amneris's Judgement Scene was given time to register in the way it hadn't under Gardner.
For all its colour, this is an Aida that still too often comes across as uninvolving and, at times, even dull. A good cast is left too often to its own devices and the lack of direction, allied to the frankly amateur look of the designs, makes for a production that hovers consistently below the standard of what one should expect from a major opera house. Worse, though, is the fact that it seems to discourage the audience from taking Verdi's opera seriously.
By Hugo Shirley
See also our interview with Claire Rutter and John Hudson about this production here