Aida, Opera North, Philharmonic Hall, Friday 24th May
Opera is an art form which is perceived as being wrapped up in all kinds of social conventions and expectations. Sadly, the snobbish stereotypes are based in reality: comments by members of this audience of being underdressed for the occasion were overheard more than once in the pre-show bar. Which is maddening because I love opera, although I only go infrequently. I don’t love it because it’s a “high” art or the company it keeps or the way I have to dress; I love it because more often than not it’s a bloody brilliant night out, with great music and high spectacle. And this production Aida by Opera North is just the fantastic night out I was hoping for.
I enjoy opera because it usually has two things – good music and a dramatic story – and Aida has both of those in spades. A quick synopsis – Aida is an Ethiopian slave who serves the Egyptian Pharoah’s daughter – and who is romantically involved with the princess’ love interest Radames. When the two countries once again engage in warfare, Aida’s loyalties are tested to the brink, with inevitably tragic consequences. I said ‘dramatic’ plot, not ‘convincing’ – there’s a lot of coincidence going on. I’m fine with that: opera is melodrama, so get on board for the ride.
I’ve seen a handful of operas but each one only once, so I’m far from an expert and can only talk about this production. But it’s immediately clear why Aida has become part of opera canon – Verdi’s score is outstanding. In Act One, as they build up to the war, nothing is held back – this is full-on musical drama. But the whole thing starts and finishes with moments of quiet, presaging and perfectly complimenting the doom. The impact of the music is further heightened by this staging. Described as ‘concert staging’, it’s unusual in keeping the orchestra right on the stage to share the space with the main performers. It means you become even more aware of precisely what’s going on in the music and how precisely it’s working with the action on stage.
There’s also a Chorus. The original role of the Chorus in Ancient Greek drama was to comment upon the actions of the protagonists, usually with a lot of references to what the gods might think of how things are shaping up. There’s definitely a call to this tradition in their role here. They are the public response to the plot, bringing it to life outside the circle of six protagonists. Most of their role is involved in praying, supplicating the gods in fear or praise, although there’s ultimately ambiguity around whether its the gods or the Priest who seals the fates of Aida and Radames. The Chorus also act with expressions which are simple, but enough to bring further emotional depth to their words.
With this staging there’s literally no room for pomp and glory, so Opera North have taken quite a different approach. They’ve recognised that at the heart of Aida is a tale for the ages – kings jousting for power through a deadly conflict, and a woman torn away from her homeland. This staging concentrates on the response to events the individuals involved. As the trumpets sound out the famous Triumphal March and the Princess Amneris stands ready in her brightest regalia, Radames’ return from battle is the antithesis of glory. Looking weary and haunted, the standard which he carried into battle is laboriously dragged across the stage as a burden. Projecting real images of the destroyed buildings of Syria hammers the point home. Unsubtle it may be, but not exactly shoehorned in. The personal consequences of the war are what drive the plot, so it makes complete sense to infuse the official proceedings with a tragedy that we unfortunately know to be all too real.
It’s Aida herself who carries the greatest emotional burden in this conflict, forced to choose whether her sympathies lie with her father and homeland or her Egyptian military commander lover. Her strongest expression of this tragedy comes early in Act Three, when in what’s undoubtedly her star moment Aida mournfully sings of her regret that she will never see her homeland again. As Aida, Alexandra Zabala’s voice is perfect – just on the right side of sweet, she manages the dynamics perfectly to gradually ramp up her cries of despair. But every voice in the cast is perfect for their character. The acting is solid, with Rafael Rojas as the unfortunate Radames probably the most expressive. Again, the staging helps you understand the power of these voices – they’re playing against a full orchestra and winning. At the greatest emotional moments the score’s role is to pick them up, emphasise the feelings and carry on when words can’t suffice.
If you’d never been to the opera, this production would be a great place to start. If you’re unsure aboit the style, you might be surprised by how easy it is to adjust to operatic narrative – you simply end up suspending your disbelief. And if you’re worried because you don’t think you’re the kind of person opera is for, just screw that and try anyway. People who go to the opera because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do are WRONG and their sense of entitlement to be gatekeeper based on what you’re wearing or how many times in the past you’ve seen the conductor (0 was my answer) REALLY hacks me off. The fact is, this is great music with a innovative production. The costumes and set, earthy clay-grey, feel contemporary without being forced. Anyone could find something interesting in it.
Opera comes into Liverpool all too rarely, and Opera North don’t expect to return until 2021. If they come back with this quality and approach, I’ll be first in the queue for tickets for what they do next. And I’ll still be in a tshirt and jeans and out for a Nabzy’s afterwards.
Featured Image – Aida 11: Opera North’s concert staging of Verdi’s Aida, Spring 2019, Rafael Rojas as Radamès with Alexandra Zabala as Aida, Conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, Director Annabel Arden, Designs and Video Direction Joanna Parker, Video Design Dick Straker, Lighting Designer Richard Moore, Photo credit: Clive Barda
Aida 03: Opera North’s concert staging of Verdi’s Aida, Spring 2019, Michael Druiett as The King of Egypt, Petri Lindroos as Ramfis, Alessandra Volpe as Amneris, Rafael Rojas as Radamès and Alexandra Zabala as Aida with the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North, Conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, Director Annabel Arden, Designs and Video Direction Joanna Parker, Video Design Dick Straker, Lighting Designer Richard Moore, Photo credit: Clive Barda
Aida 12: Opera North’s concert staging of Verdi’s Aida, Spring 2019, Eric Greene as Amonasro, Alexandra Zabala as Aida, Rafael Rojas as Radamès and Alessandra Volpe as Amneris, Conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, Director Annabel Arden, Designs and Video Direction Joanna Parker, Video Design Dick Straker, Lighting Designer Richard Moore, Photo credit: Clive Barda
Aida 04: Opera North’s concert staging of Verdi’s Aida, Spring 2019, Alexandra Zabala as Aida, Conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, Director Annabel Arden, Designs and Video Direction Joanna Parker, Video Design Dick Straker, Lighting Designer Richard Moore, Photo credit: Clive Barda