To what extent should a design concept be allowed to dominate the impact of a new production? We have got used to director's theatre, where an intellectual idea – often apparently at odds with the narrative line – can create a frisson to bring a new sense of life and challenge to a familiar work. But can – or even should – a design concept do the same? ENO's new presentation of Verdi's Aida is overwhelmed by Zandra Rhodes' designs. Occasionally this is effective – the elephant in the triumph scene, the vast slotted screen for Radames' trial, the confined glow of the temple of Ptha – but too often the brashness, often vulgarity, of the approach works against the intimacy and tension of the text. The visual impact is also unsupported by inappropriate lighting which seems to get brighter as the music gets louder.
Costuming is more successful and probably looks even better in San Francisco for which this is a joint production. However too often the visual impact veers uncomfortably close to the brashness of pantomime rather than the claustrophobia of a clandestine love affair played out against the background of a brutal war.
Thankfully Edward Gardner's conducting brings a muscularity and power to the score often lacking in the stage presentation, and the orchestra were in superb form. The augmented chorus produced a wonderfully full-bodied sound, making for a thrilling temple scene and a chilling trial.
Soloists are drawn from strength. John Hudson is an heroic Radames, though his costume was hardly militaristic. Claire Rutter's Aida started hesitantly but grew in authority to give use a convincing Nile scene and a touching death. Jane Dutton has the voice for Amneris but the Desperate Housewives approach to characterisation was unconvincing. Veterans like Gwynne Howell and the excellent Brindley Sherratt were given little to do. The dancers impressed by their integration, particularly the Indian dancers in the second act, though the costumes for the Triumph Scene bordered on racist.
If I have said nothing about Jo Davies production it is because I was hardly aware of it. I thought we had long since rid ourselves of the days when singers wandered about aimlessly in pretty costumes and sang to the audience from centre stage but it seems I was wrong. This may be acceptable for Musical audiences but it won't do for opera. We need a sense that there is an intelligence driving a new production not a stage manager making sure the chorus don't bump into each other.
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