I can’t recall the last time I had so many cancellation notices in the run-up to an opera. First, Micaela Carosi withdrew due to pregnancy and/or, depending on how much you read into these things, being boo’d at the dress rehearsal. Given her reviews for the first run, we might not count that as too grievous a loss. Then Fabio Luisi gets a better offer and swaps Covent Garden’s Aïda for the Met’s Rheingold, in place of an ailing James Levine. And finally, a few days before the performance, Olga Borodina succumbs to a virus and withdraws to spend the night, one assumes, with a cold compress and some Vicks.
Closer to home, we booked the stage-most Balcony box for the performance, sacrificing breadth of stage view for the pleasures of being separated from the rest of the rabble. And, unlike the other Balcony boxes, those two have the four seats in a row across the front, instead of in two front/back pairs, this latter arrangement meaning that one seat that has nearly no view at all. So the view may not be comprehensive, but it’s interesting in its proximity to the stage and is roughly equitable for all of the party. One of our party particularly liked the boxes and didn’t like being squashed in our favourite seating block, in the Amphitheatre sides. We booked it for him. Then he cancelled.
So, two guests, one soprano, one mezzo-soprano and one conductor down. Not bad going.
Anyway, new guests were willingly found. Liudmyla Monastyrska gamely stepped in for Micaela Carosi; Marianne Cornetti got back into Amneris’s get-up for another run; and the later-in-the-run conductor, Daniele Rustioni, mounted the podium earlier than planned.
When the production was brand new – last year – our tickets had to be given away due to a family commitment: a funeral, as it rather sadly happened. So this was our first glimpse of the David McVicar take on Aïda. Verdict? A definite game of two halves.
Much has been made of the lack of anything authentically ‘Egyptian’. Frankly, that bothered me not a jot. The fragrant Orientalism of the music is very approximate, and references to specific settings in the text are not enough to make a more abstract setting greatly problematic. And anyway, it’s all so contrived that it is in no way compromised by the lack of pharaohs’ heads and elephants. McVicar’s curious multi-ancient-cultural melée is engaging, dramatic and, indeed, spectacular when Verdi calls for it. The images of muscular heros being hoisted on ropes and hacked about by bare-breasted temple girls wielding hooked knives provides a remarkable accompaniment to the music. What with the ropes, the writhing, and the muscular nudity, one can’t help feeling that we get an insight into Mr McVicar’s DVD collection: the ones his Mum doesn’t get to browse when she comes for visits. When we reach Amneris’s chamber, the dancing of the nude ‘bathtime lesbians’ is rather preposterous and, in a truly dismal end to the scene, they lift what I assume was supposed to be a bath full of ass’s milk, or some such, tip it sideways (needless to say, with no loss of liquid) and haul it off stage.
Where the production really stalls, though, is the second half – Acts 3 and 4 – in which, with bombast mostly behind us, we are in a more intimate world of personal drama between the protagonists. With the exception of the judgment scene, where Amneris is left to collapse emotionally as successive guilty verdicts are pronounced off-stage, the space is entirely unsuited to the intensity and intimacy of the drama. Too often, two or three characters are left to mooch about in a large, empty expanse of stage with only minimal help from the lighting to ‘close down’ the cavernous expanse of stage. The entombment is weak, with a curious raised around-the-edge platform forming an expansive, and unthreatening, tomb. The whole performance starts with gusto and energy, and slowly fizzles out to a rather damp finale.
That said, this production scores time and again over the truly awful rubbish that Robert Wilson, rather pretentiously, inflicted on Covent Garden for its last production of Aïda. I still have very vivid memories of the excruciating dullness and anger-inducing perversity of such a ripe, melodramatic, rumbustuous score being set off against that most buttock-achingly slow and alienating gestural pomposity. It had nice lighting, I remember thinking, whenever I could be bothered to look, which is probably the one notable area that could have been improved in McVicar’s stage imagery.
Rustioni, as seen from our vantage point in the stage boxes, threw himself into the drama of the piece, conducting with a score that he didn’t need for many passages, at points requiring some rapid page-turning to catch up. It was a lively, dramatic reading, with good dynamic range between bombast and intimacy. It was difficult to judge how well precision was maintained because being (almost) between the orchestra and the stage prompts some odd dynamics: things are timed between stage and pit to come together in mid-auditorium, not at the footlights. Anyway, we enjoyed his reading, its alertness and its sense of the dramatic pace of the piece. Again, from where we were sat, the orchestra was a more fragmented sound than normally experienced, which made for an exciting listen, with many tiny details pointed up in the process. It certainly sounded on far better form than the rather raucous sound that accompanied last Thursday’s Swan Lake.
In performance terms, the revelation was Monastyrska. I can’t wait for her Lady Macbeth in a month or two. She wasn’t a tremendous actress, especially when it came to the more tender emotions, but her voice was thrilling. From well-projected but soft pianissimos, through to full-on orchestra-riding dramatic declamation, she was great to hear. Her voice seemed to have just the right gleaming secure tone for the part, and I look forward to hearing her again as she develops. I can’t say I missed Carosi…
Marianne Cornetti divided our group, but I warmed to her Amneris greatly. Again, she is not a ‘free’ actress, and many gestures seemed ‘manufactured’ in the rehearsal room, rather than being a spontaneously-developed response to her character’s predicament. She reminded me of many a Turandot in some of the gestures she adopted, particularly the hands shielding herself from those speaking (forceful) truth unto her power. However, she did come into her own during the judgment scene, as her haughty princess crumbled under the realisation of what she had triggered through her jealousy. Vocally, she had heft and a great range of colours and, just as she seemed to tire, she seemed to come back with more. The character, and McVicar’s presentation of it with extravagant headdress and other-worldy make-up, suited her perhaps better than Eboli had in the last run of Don Carlo.
The less said about Carlo Ventre the better. His brand of loud, lumpen Verdi hero-tenor (think Marcello Giordani, Marcelo Alvarez, et al) is always easy to listen to (indeed, hard not to hear), but rarely makes for a roundly-enjoyable presentation of the part. There was zero charisma between leading lady and leading man, which may not have helped overcome the lack of atmosphere provided by McVicar in later passages.
Amonasro was vociferously taken by Carlos Almaguer, to positive effect in a relative small role. Likewise, the King of Brindley Sherratt and Ramfis of Vitalij Kowaljow delivered sterling, if not revelatory, performances (though, in writing that, I must put on record doubts that there is anything to be revealed about those particular characters…)
Overall, then, a very enjoyable evening at the Royal Opera: some good singing, a dramatic reading, and a production which did something interesting to an old warhorse even if it won’t go down in legend. Aïda is, for me, a very long way from the subtleties of Don Carlo, or Otello, or even Simon Boccanegra. It is, though, an enjoyable romp and, despite some slowing down in the later acts, it sent us out into the night humming great tunes and generally uplifted.