Giuseppe Verdi
English National Opera

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Verdi, commissioned by the Egyptians to write an opera for their new opera house in Cairo, immersed himself in Egyptian religion, music, history and geography.

Aida, set in Egypt at the time of the pharaohs, is the most spectacular of all operas. Premiered in 1871 it was a huge success and went on to become one of his most popular operas. It has beautiful melodies, four great roles, rousing choruses and spectacle.

The conflict of love and duty, side by side with jealousy, betrayal and self-sacrifice against a background of jingoism and religion, has been the staple dramatic diet ever since theatre began. The Egyptian priesthood braying for blood and revenge has a familiar and unpleasant resonance for audiences today.

Aida was written less than a year after the troops of the newly unified Italy had marched on Rome and stripped the Pope of all temporal power. Verdi was anti-clerical.

Aramis (Jane Dutton), the pharaoh’s daughter, and Aida (Claire Rutter), a slave in the royal household, love the same man. They love Ramades, who is given command of the army and leads the soldiers to victory in a battle against the Ethiopians. As a reward the pharaoh offers him his daughter and to be his successor. Will Radames marry Aramis and betray Aida, the woman he loves? What do you think?

There is a lack of dramatic excitement. There are no personalities on stage. The singers are not sexually alluring. The acting is nil. The performances do not complement Verdi's emotional force and intensity. Amaris is a jealous femme fatale, given to hysterics, but there are no fireworks in her outbursts here; similarly there is no passion whatsoever between Aida and Ramades. It is difficult to believe that they are in love. They just stand around and sing. Whenever they move it always seems artificial, The production picks up fractionally with the arrival of Aida’s father (Iain Patterson) in chains.

Verdi offers what sounds like a contradiction: intimate drama in monumental settings. Fashion designer Zara Rhodes has decided to eschew the Sphinx and the enormous pillars of Luxor and Karnack and to concentrate instead on the blazing colours which can still be found in the funeral chambers of the Valley of the Kings. The costumes are bright; the turquoise skirts for the bare-chested priesthood are particularly effective. The cartoonish set lacks weight and grandeur.

The Victorian and Edwardian theatregoer went to the theatre for the spectacle. Today the best place to see spectacle is still the opera house and in certain West End musicals. Verdi’s famous triumphal march is not nearly triumphant enough. The elephant is fun, but not a patch on the elephant which strode down Regent’s Street last year. The choreography is tacky. The flag waving is insipid. Cleopatra did this sort of thing so much better. Her entrance by barge down the Nile must have been a fantastic sight. More recently Hollywood and Cecil B DeMille also knew how to stage epic spectacle. You may remember Elizabeth Taylor entering Rome with a cast of thousands and, when she finally reached Caesar, giving him a big wink, as if to say, “Beat that!”

The last scene should take place in a tomb. Ramades and Aida are about to be buried alive. Here it takes place on an open stage with draped curtains, robbing the tragedy of any drama. Interestingly the most dramatic scene takes place off-stage during the trial of Ramades when he is accused three times of treason and remains silent.

Kevin Catchpole reviewed the 2008 revival.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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