Turn on the television news any night, and footage of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa supplies regular and inescapable horror stories. Verdi’s 1871 opera concerns an ancient, fictional war between Egypt and Ethiopia, which the former easily wins: it explores themes of victory and defeat, patriotism and love, and the powerlessness of those nominally in charge of the state.
Daniel Slater’s production sidesteps all these issues and sets the opera instead in a contemporary museum, where Verdi’s Egyptians become wealthy, hedonistic patrons – the famous triumph scene is a fancy-dress party that descends into an orgy – and Aida a lowly cleaner, with her father and the rest of the conquered Ethiopian army poor people oppressed by their betters.
There’s an idea here, but it’s not Verdi’s, and anyone expecting the composer’s dramatic concerns to be seriously explored will be both puzzled and frustrated. The result is a trivialisation of the themes so boldly taken on in the original.
It’s a pity, because Opera Holland Park has assembled an excellent cast for the piece, while both chorus and orchestra are on strong form under conductor Manlio Benzi, who really understands how this music should go.
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers is a vocally commanding Aida, rising with confidence to the huge challenges of the title role. Heather Shipp hits the musical and dramatic heights as her rival, the Egyptian princess Amneris. Peter Auty is on top form as the Egyptian general Radames, singing with a genuinely heroic ring to his tone. Jonathan Veira is magnificent as Aida’s royal father Amonasro, his expressive use of the Italian text a model. Smaller roles such as Keel Watson’s King of Egypt and Graeme Broadbent’s High Priest Ramfis are both towers of strength.
If only the show looked half as good as it sounded, but sadly it’s a case of shut your eyes and think of Egypt.