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Aida

Giuseppe Verdi
English National Opera
London Coliseum
(2008)

Production photo

Why travel across Europe to the ancient Arena of Verona when English National Opera can stage an Aida like this at the London Coliseum?

When Jo Davies' production was first seen here a year ago, critical voices were raised against a perceived sacrifice of spectacle to intimacy. No small offence where Aida is concerned you might think. As I sat wondering at the grandeur of the show on its return this week, I reflected that it was quite as thrilling as that which I had witnessed in Emperor Augustus's 2,000 year-old arena two years ago.

To be sure, the sheer charisma of that rare sense of history one feels sitting among 18,000 spectators in Verona is hardly matched even in the beautifully-restored English Coliseum. And one is unlikely, in the British age of PC, to see a real elephant on stage during the great triumphal march. For that matter, there wasn't one in Verona when I was there.

Yet little else of Verdi's intended spectacle is missing in this revival. There is even a powerful vision of elephant, impressively conjured in purple by Zandra Rhodes' remarkable design team, trunk curling and great tusks akimbo as the giant spectre moves down stage before vanishing whence it came.

And the entire proceedings, both visually and musically spectacular, are conducted by Gerard Korsten, recently at La Scala, making his ENO debut.

The cast, virtually unchanged from last season's first performances - the only newcomer being Matthew Best as Ramfis the Chief Priest - includes, as Pharaoh, bass Gwynne Howell celebrating the 40th anniversary of his first appearance with the company.

Claire Rutter's soaring soprano is dazzling in the title role and, since few operatic soloists in my experience possess the physical élan of their theatrical fellows, it must be said that tenor John Hudson cuts a handsome dash as a Radames without the score to match the brilliance of the famous duet of Aida and Amneris (the excellent mezzo Jane Dutton) in which jealous royal daughter taunts her slave.

Six on-stage trumpeters lead the triumphal march of celebration in their bombastic B-flat and A-minor tones heralding the peak of the production's spectacle.

From here, save for the entrance of Aida's father Amonasro, a virtuoso performance by baritone Iain Paterson, it is, theatrically-speaking at least, downhill almost all the way. The exceptions being Amneris' lovely prayer O native land and her powerful fury at the loss of Radames as the famous entombment of the lovers nears with the approach of the final scene.

At the same time it has to be said that dramatically speaking none of the principals, Paterson apart, seems to get into the skin of their role. Yet much of this is down to Verdi himself who clearly knew the great tragedy he had created, arguably one of the most famous anti climaxes of the operatic canon.

Yet rarely can the traditional imagery and colours of Egyptian burial ritual have been so evocatively staged in turquoise, orange and gold.

The production can be seen at the London Coliseum on October 23rd, 25th, 30th, and on November 1st, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 20th and 22nd.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole