The Royal Albert Hall
Raymond Gubbay Productions are renowned for their spectacle—and this heat-scorched, Egyptian Aida is a visual feast. There are water fountains, fires, litters for the king and even a boat! Isabella Bywater’s set recreates the vivid landscapes that so captured Verdi when he first read Egyptologist Marriete’s proposal in 1870. The combination of drama, dance, music and scenery truly live up to the description of opera as a total art form.
Set in-the-round, Stephen Medcalf maximizes the huge space in the Albert Hall, with entries from all directions. The chorus of actors and dancers combined make a 100+ cast onstage, and the impact is quite something. Bywater evokes traditional white dress, which compliment her sandy sarcophagus littered set. Aida stands out as an emerald jewel in the dunes, a mass of swirling satin. Claire Rutter sparkles vocally too as Aida, her dynamic control breathtaking.
Medcalf’s only break from a very literal representation of the libretto is the addition of character Amelia Edwards, who historically documented her trip up in the Nile in 1873 in a best selling book. A romantic novelist and journalist, Amelia thoroughly recorded the trip through prose, sketches and watercolour. Her writing evokes the idea that at any moment the monuments in the Nile Valley might come to life, which is just what happens in the overture of Medcalf’s Aida.
As Amelia sketches, the images appear projected onto the back wall, slowly transformed into photos of the pyramids. Amelia (Charlotte Medcalf) continues to observe the action throughout the opera, amazed by the world unfurling before her. This was only abundantly clear if one read the programme notes, but despite this her presence throughout the work felt contrived—as if trying to crowbar in a gimmick. The juxtoposition of Victorian dress and ancient Egyptians certainly caused murmurs of confusion in the stalls.
However, Amelia was easy to ignore, and at the arrival of the male chorus for an energetic spear routine (choreographed by Sarah Fahie), the audience sat up in their seats and took notice. The famous Triumphal March was accompanied by a rejoicing spectacle of the spoils of war—the newly acquired slaves. More energetic than macabre, the dancers sprang around the stage, ducking and wheeling amongst the guards before finally captured and tossed into the air.
Musically, the Royal Philharmonic, led by Andrew Greenwood, is superb if the toe tapping in the audience during the March is anything to go by! The power of the cast in unison was immense, filling the space. The Royal Albert Hall, renowned for it’s challenging acoustic properties, posed no difficulty for the soloists, audible no matter where they faced. Unfortunately at times the synchronization between singers and orchestra wasn’t perfect, a problem amplified as forces grew onstage. This resulted in a disorientating effect as up to three different tempi surrounded you, cast underneath the stage, behind the orchestra and in front.
Overall another successful Grand Opera from Raymond Gubbay Productions, bringing the immortal score of one of the worlds most famous operas, and combining it with the infinite possibilities of the Royal Albert Hall’s unique ‘in the round’ performing space. For all its logistical difficulties, a pleasure to attend nonetheless.
Reviewer: Louise Lewis