Opera Holland Park
Music or theatre written for special occasions tends to remain exactly that – occasional. Fit for that event but not possessing sufficient staying power or independent artistic life to deserve further outings. There are exceptions though, and Verdi’s Aida stands as a remarkable and still relevant lesson in how to create a thrilling spectacle, which at the same time possesses a private inner drama of great complexity with power to move, not simply to impress. Any successful production requires both aspects to work equally well and to feed off each other: while musically this was the case at Holland Park, the production values were not always helpful.
This opera nearly did not happen. By the late 1860s Verdi was more focused on the running of his estate than on composition, and it took a huge fee from the Khedive of Egypt to persuade him to take on the commission for the opening of the Cairo Opera House. But once committed he used the framework of Ghislanzoni’s libretto to channel some of his most impressive reflections on the conflicts between individual and community values, the tyranny of the clergy, and that perennial theme in all his work – fathers and daughters. While the opera is famous, if not notorious, for the raucous triumphalism of the choruses in Act 2, that reputation is belied by the majority of the writing, which is of the utmost delicacy in both the vocal line and orchestral palette. This diverse combination is all the more difficult to bring off in a semi-open-air setting but Holland Park Opera have great experience now in making the most of their setting, and the challenge of these practical contrasts was well met in this production.
Despite its fame and importance in the canon Aida is not performed that often, certainly in London. Presumably a large measure of the explanation rests with the costs involved whether in personnel or cost of costumes, sets and associated pharaonic bling. The idea of an un-lavish production is simply infeasible. But there also seems to be a degree of reservation and uncertainty about the appropriate style to adopt. Should the orientalism of the original be bracketed or defiantly embraced? A decisive directorial intervention is essential here, and in this respect director Daniel Slater to a degree fudges the issue. We begin in a modern setting and then gradually move into a much more traditional and straightforward rendition with the transition between the two never made dramatically explicit. While this does not significantly diminish the many pleasures and rewards of the evening, the opera deserved and would have benefited from the vote of confidence of clear commitment to a single governing vision, of whatever kind and character, traditional or subversive.
The surviving mock-Jacobean façade of Holland House provides a suitably grandiose architectural backdrop for a stage platform populated by three larger-than-life Egyptian statues of gods on plinths – designer Robert Innes Hopkins places us in a museum gallery, with an opulent black-tie reception underway hosted by Amneris (Heather Shipp) and her father, the King (Keel Watson), and with Ramfis (Graeme Broadbent) as MC. The inevitable spilt drink provides a cue for Aida (Gweneth-Ann Jeffers) to enter in cleaner’s garb and a significant glance between her and Radames (Peter Auty), witnessed by Amneris, sets the plot in motion. The theme of the donors’ museum party that gets out of control continues at least to the end of Act Two as Radames is armed for combat from a historic set of armour, and the museum staff emerge as the Ethiopian prisoners. The triumph scene is decorated with jewellery and treasure apparently looted from elsewhere in the museum collection, and an orgy develops fuelled by predictable white powders and showers of bank notes. Things calm down once we reach the ‘Nile Scene’, final judgment and entombment. Here the production finally gets out of the way and allows the confrontations between Aida and her father, and Radames and Amneris their full emotional weight and dramatic freedom before an affecting final reunion between Radames and Aida. One could not help thinking though that there was a missed opportunity in not making more of Verdi’s distaste for the clerisy that ultimately governs Egypt. Anti-clericalism and the need for clear separation of church and state is a dominant theme of Act Four and indeed of Verdi’s artistic life as a whole. While Heather Shipp as Amneris got the message across powerfully on stage, it is a pity that the production did not reference this major theme more clearly.
Amongst all these mixed messages the musical values of the performance were nevertheless very well projected. The City of London Sinfonia under conductor Manlio Benzi had a very good evening. The brass have a lot of work to do both onstage and off, whether triumphant or darkly ominous, and all these hurdles were handsomely cleared. Elsewhere there was all the bite and heft you could ask for in the ceremonial moments, and many delicate solos and chamber-style interludes to balance them. Benzi was very sensitive to the needs of his singers in pacing the accompaniment, though some of the choruses were taken at a break-neck speed that seemed to press everyone a little harder than the score demands. In the title role Jeffers was most impressive vocally, with fine-spun delicate lines in the intimate scenes and the ability to soar over the other singers and the orchestra when required. Her dramatic personality was rather recessed early on but she came into her own in the last two acts, and especially in the wonderful passionate duet with her father, the Ethiopian king Amonasro (Jonathan Veira), who made every note in his relatively small role count. Peter Auty was unwell on the night and only acted the role of Radames, with a substitute singer in the pit. This was less damaging to dramatic credibility than might be expected, given the quality of the deputy and the committed plausibility of Auty’s acting. In some ways the most interesting character in the opera is Amneris who experiences the most taxing dilemmas and whose inner life we glimpse more keenly than is the case of the other lead roles. She is the embodiment of the conflict between individual preference and duty to the state, and by the end the mouthpiece for what Verdi wants us in the audience to feel and think. After something of a slow start Heather Shipp brought these dimensions out powerfully in her strong stage persona and heroic yet plangent tone. Keel Watson and Graeme Broadbent acted as powerful bass foils to her and gave strongly characterised, detailed performances as pharaoh and high priest. In a work that is more than usually dependent on a strong choral contribution, Opera Holland Park Chorus, over thirty strong in number, did sterling work not just vocally but in choreography and inventive, flexible stage movement for which movement director Maxine Braham should receive due credit.
This is a very great opera that can take many different interpretations. However, there is no room for compromise. Ultimately, it either has to be done straight and with absolute conviction that the themes with which it deals are as important to our culture now as they were to Verdi in the 1860s. Or if the traditional setting is thought to raise too many troubling questions or is beyond budget to realize then a fully thought-through alternative scenario is needed. Despite its outstanding musical and visual and dynamic virtues this production never quite makes the final choice, and if there is one principle that this story inescapably represents then it is the need to take up a stance and stick with it to the bitter end.