ENO’s Aida review at London Coliseum – ‘a musical and visual spectacle’
Verdi’s Aida lends itself to spectacle. Set in ancient Egypt, and with temple scenes and triumphal processions crucial to the plot, it’s an opera with blockbuster values. Little wonder then that past productions have featured live elephants on stage and taken place in front of the pyramids at Giza.
This new Aida that opens English National Opera’s season offers a spectacle of a different kind. There are no elephants, but plenty of thrills are to be had from the fantastic costumes, dramatic lighting, well-paced direction and the inclusion of members of theatre company Improbable as non-singing extras.
Director Phelim McDermott, the co-founder of Improbable, puts the love triangle front and centre – the Egyptian warrior Radames, the Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris, and the Ethiopian slave Aida, whose father is, inconveniently for her romantic desires, King Amonasro of Ethiopia, who is leading his troops against Egypt. Tom Pye’s striking, block-like sets allow for both the intimate scenes with the four principal characters that dominate the final two acts and the crowd scenes every Aida fan rightfully expects.
The singers are excellent, with American soprano Latonia Moore, new to ENO but not to Aida, bringing a wide dramatic and vocal range to the role. Her lament for her homeland in Act III is especially affecting. Gwyn Hughes Jones as Radames is full of the stuff heroic tenors are made of, while there’s good characterisation from Musa Ngqungwana as Aida’s father, Robert Winslade Anderson as the chief priest and Michelle DeYoung as the anguished Amneris. Keri-Lynn Wilson keeps firm rein of the ENO orchestra while the chorus provides astounding moments of soft clarity.
Kevin Pollard’s eye-popping costumes nearly steal the show. As well as the Issey Miyake-gone-feral dresses worn by Amneris, there’s the excessive brocade on Radames’ uniform and the flowing red drapery on the High Priestess (an excellent Eleanor Dennis) and her acolytes. Sometimes this Aida is so visually arresting that it’s hard to know where to look next: a benchmark for a spectacle if there ever was one.