Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Aida

Giuseppe Verdi and Antonio Ghislanzoni
Ellen Kent and Opera International
Grand Theatre, Swansea, and touring
(2004)

Aida publicity image

Ellen Kent and Opera International are known to attract a slightly different breed of operagoers than those who attend performances by the likes of Welsh National Opera or even the more small-scale and intimate productions from Opera School Wales, Opera Box and the more recently founded Swansea City Opera.

Many of the companies who claim that opera need not be an elitist art form fail to address that indefinable barrier which prevents so many people from entering a theatre to experience the magic of the genre at first hand.

While technical innovations such as surtitles have undoubtedly done much to break down barriers, enabling people to understand the dialogue between characters on stage, there are undoubtedly those who still find themselves confounded by the perception that opera is, by its very nature, "not for them".

Ellen Kent, however, uses visual spectacle and a determinedly literal approach to put bums on seats - and it works every time. Previous productions, for example, have featured live horses, hunting dogs, birds, live fish (in Madama Butterfly)and even full frontal female nudity (Rigoletto).

This thrilling presentation of the classic Verdi opera set in ancient Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs uses its visual gimmicks sparingly and one has to wait a while before the "toys", as they are known, manifest themselves. But by and large they are worth waiting for, and anticipation is half the fun: the celebratory sequence at the gateway to Thebes features a spectacular fountain which brought back memories of Liberace's Waltzing Waters, legions of dancers, acrobatic routines and a bejewelled elephant which, despite the fact that it is not real, must be a logistical nightmare for the crew.

So much for the gimmicks - what of the performance itself? Aida was played by Natalia Margarit with great maturity and presence, though there are perhaps the odd moments here and there where her lower register is perhaps not quite as resonant as it could be. Akhmed Agadi, as Radames, might look rather more like a Roman centurion than an Egyptian commander-in-chief but his fantastic tenor voice is nothing short of superb and his acting skills do much to lift the overall standard of the piece.

Chisinau National Opera, accompanied here by dancers from the Chisinau National Ballet and children from Stagecoach Theatre Arts, Swansea - not to mention a host of extras from local amateur operatic societies recruited to play slaves - have pulled out all the stops to make this a memorable piece of theatre which works not only a purely musical level but also in terms of visuals and narrative.

Anyone who is slightly wary of opera would do well to seek out future productions from this company and go along to savour the experience.

Reviewer: Graham Williams