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Review: AIDA, Royal Opera House

An Aida for our times will please and dismay

Review: AIDA, Royal Opera House Review: AIDA, Royal Opera House State buildings overwhelm the individual - the intention, of course, is to project power, to underline the futility of dissent, to bolster the egos of the leaders and their lackeys.

In the 80s, to go from Rome to Moscow was to go from a treasure trove of art to a pit of austerity - but the effect was, as intended, the same. To travel to the newly independent states that emerged from the 20th century Russian empire in the once so hopeful 21st, is to see a new take on Stalin's brutalism, one leavened with local cultural references, but with that scale, and objective, left intact.

So Robert Carsen was mining a deep seam when, in 2018, he conceived of an Aida without the exoticism so dismissing the elephant from the room - the colonialists' framing of a colonised people's history (whether well-intentioned or not). In this production, Miriam Buether's sets suggest Russia, North Korea or even Protestantism's bleak cathedrals and Annemarie Wood's beautiful dress uniforms contrasting with combat fatigues, bring to mind a West Point passing out parade or the heartbreaking formality of coffins arriving at US airports bringing back the fallen from Iraq or Afghanistan. We're in a place we recognise, but it's not one in particular.

200 words in and not a comment on the singing, the story, the music? Well, yes, because Carsen's conception of the opera in this new production will create delight and despair in equal measure. Some will see a great work given renewed relevance 150 years into its life, a new production hatched in 2018 with a tragic prescience as it lands in 2022. Others will bemoan the pandering to the persistent desire to see 19th century works through the sensibilities of a certain strand of 21st century politics, to deny the pleasure of visual splendour and the exotic for the sake of avoiding the usual suspects piping up on Newsnight or in The Guardian.

As ever with great art (well, almost - I'm not sure The Valkyrie came away unscathed from the ENO's anorak-heavy production last year), the humanity of the story and the power of its telling relegates such bickering to the margins.

In these vast halls, a tragic love triangle plays out against the background of war, death and homeland. Radames loves Aida, the disguised princess of Ethiopea working as the servant of Amneris, daughter of the king of Egypt - who, in turn, loves Radames. When Radames defeats an insurgency launched by the King of Ethiopia, he becomes the hero of Egypt and frees his prisoners, her countrymen, to underline his love for Aida. Amneris discovers that Aida is her rival and, at her father's urging by emotional blackmail, Aida tricks Radames into giving away a military secret. He is condemned as a traitor, Amneris is distraught at his reluctance to allow her to save him and Aida has disappeared. You will not be surprised to learn that things do not end well.

Francesco Meli brings a stiff-backed dignity to his Radames, a man in love who knows the price that condition exacts and buckles in the face of its contradictions with duty in that world of war, death and homeland. His singing reflects that knowledge, always pained, always uncertain, speaking to the vulnerability Radames knows he has acquired through his love for a foreigner in a polity that brooks no such ambiguities.

As Aida, Elena Stikhina covers the technical and emotional range this most demanding of roles requires, particularly in the pivotal Act Three that seals the lovers' fate. At first, one wonders if Stikhina can project above the orchestra and the monumental set, but her voice and her acting soon become compelling, the ferocity of Aida's love fully realised.

The third point of the triangle, Agnieszka Rehlis's Amneris, begins as little more than a haughty, entitled princess, but Rehlis, growing in confidence on opening night, soon displays how her infatuation has led her to such disastrous choices and we see the confused woman behind the power-dressing - and we hear the beauty too in her mezzo-soprano.

Though Ludovic Tézier and, especially, Soloman Howard, impress in supporting roles, the big stars of this production are the chorus and orchestra. Though some dances have been replaced by the slow solemnity of the rituals attendant on the military honouring of its dead, it's where the power of the reconceptualising of the opera's setting comes through. Here we see the pride and sacrifice of war, the unnamed and unknowable for whom an eternal flame shines in memory.

Much of the chorus's work is done in soft prayers, shorn of bombast, the fact that they were there sufficient for the soldiers and those they fought beside. The one dance is a celebration of the brutal intimacy of fighting a war of counter-insurgency, the tactics of hand-to-hand combat shown on stage, the air support on video, the stakes a nation's existence. We all think of the same thing, the same place, the same war - right here, right now in our shared European home.

When Antonio Pappano bid his orchestra to take their applause at the curtain call, it seemed louder than ever, a reflection perhaps of some in the house being grateful for something that reminded the audience of Aidas past, but also an acknowledgement that Verdi was given full value for every note he penned, every mood he sought to evoke, all the pain he put into what we see on stage. Sometimes opera's metaphorical bells and whistles can overpower its literal strings and woodwinds, but not this time - the music told the story every bit as much as the sets and the singing.

Aida has some claim to being the most iconic opera of all, the most excessive, the most, in the figurative sense of the word, operatic. If this production loses some of that historical heft and visual splendour, it surely gains as much in return with a foregrounding of its music, its relevance and its tragedy.

Aida is at the Royal Opera House until 12 October and again in Summer 2023

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

From This Author - Gary Naylor

Gary Naylor is chief London reviewer for BroadwayWorld ( and feels privileged to... (read more about this author)

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