Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni
The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Opera North strays into unfamiliar territory for its current staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida; it has been ages since the company played The Bridgewater Hall. It is not only the physical location that makes this show distinctly different—it is staged as a concert rather than a full theatrical production.
Aida has many of the features that make opera so distinctive: grand passion and a setting that allows for lavish costumes and opulent sets. It seems self-defeating to deny audiences features that they might take for granted but director Annabel Arden is determined to set a disquieting tone with this modern-dress, highly contemporary production.
At the time of the Pharaohs, Egypt is winning the war with neighbouring Ethiopia. Aida (Alexandra Zabala) is an enslaved Ethiopian serving Amneris (Alessandra Volpe), the Princess of Egypt. Amneris is infatuated with Radamès (Rafael Rojas), an army captain, and suspects he might be in love with Aida. This is true and it is not Aida’s only secret—she is also the daughter of the Ethiopian king.
The current production has none of the spectacle one might expect from this opera. The cast perform on a thin platform in front of the orchestra. Although the orchestra wear dark formal clothing, the chorus are dressed as if they have just wandered in off the street. Joanna Parker’s designs are limited to a tattered screen swaying to the rear of the stage featuring images of aerial footage of bombed buildings and people covered in cracking clay filmed at such an extreme angle as to be abstract.
Yet, although the production might be stripped back to basics, the scale is apparent in the staging with the cast backed by a full orchestra in plain view and the chorus rising back to the rear of the theatre. Although the production might lack visual spectacle, the effect of the cast competing with over-lapping vocals produces a glorious cacophony ensuring there is no loss of power or drama.
Annabel Arden’s direction is so clear and precise, the opera is riveting from the start. This is a highly contemporary production. The Egyptian elite are decadent; Michael Druiett is a coarse ruler in the style of Donald Trump, knocking back a drink while inspecting his troops, while his daughter is something of a flirt, especially with the Chief Priest who also likes a drop.
The population, as in our current society, is polarised. In addition to their vocal duties, the chorus of Opera North serve as a Greek chorus, observing and commenting upon the action. The male tenors roar approval when war is announced while the female sopranos cover their faces in grief. The actions are reversed during more reflective moments but both sides are united in making jingoistic cheers at the sight of the returning army. It is clear the general population, rather than the elite, will have to endure the effects of the conflict as the messenger arriving with news of the outbreak of war staggers through the chorus rather than entering on stage.
The stark setting compels the cast to carry the emotional weight of the story. Amneris and Aida are often played as love rivals but Alessandra Volpe and Alexandra Zabala take a more complex approach. Volpe seems constantly tormented by her choices and either seeking quick relief in alcohol or sensual pleasures or desperate for redemption. Zabala on the other hand seems more cerebral as if she has achieved spiritual peace even before her sacrifice.
Director Arden reflects modern-day society in the opera. In a nondescript grey top and slacks, Aida is very much the image of a displaced refugee. Rafael Rojas superbly reflects the confused masculine attitude towards war: strutting proudly like a peacock in his uniform but returning from the conflict shell-shocked and traumatised, clutching his cloak for comfort.
Stripping down Aida to the bare essentials has allowed Opera North to uncover the raw passion within the opera in this powerful contemporary production.