Engaging and visually spectacular, ENO’s new production of Aida foregrounds the human themes of war, love, duty and honour through a fantastical world as unsettlingly familiar as it is strange.
I approached this production as part of an ongoing research project into contemporary productions of ‘Orientalist’ operas. As far as exoticism goes, Verdi’s approach to Aida was archetypal of Western approaches to the mysterious and magical ‘other’, seeking to ‘authentically’ reproduce an alluring world of emotions, irrationality and dangerous sexuality that was equally the product of Western society’s interpretation and the heart of so many of its fears.
The world of Phelim McDermott’s Aida is indeed alluring. Emotional, sexual, dangerous, brave and beautiful, it is however clearly a world that we all inhabit, unavoidably recognisable and thereby all the more pertinent and powerful. The stylised set, juxtaposed with eclectic costumes, simultaneously evoke the ‘Egypt’ referenced by the libretto without reformulating tired architectural and historical-cultural stereotypes which essentialise and distance the human message of that civilisation through the seductive kaleidoscope of the Western imperial gaze. Soldiers are bedecked in a variety of European military apparel, lady chorus members’ headdresses range from modern interpretations of African women’s headwear to the positively medieval, and the pagan nakedness of temple dancers juxtaposes with priestly robes that are unmistakably influenced by high-church Christianity. Colour is the device that binds the diversity of representation together, stylising the mood of various scenes and cleverly unifying the visual field. Verdi’s indulgent orchestral passages are brought to life by a multi-talented ‘skills ensemble’ who represent and enhance moods and scenes through acrobatics, dance and physical theatre.
The ethnically diverse cast, unusually representative of the part of the world invoked by the storyline, is welcome, and the singers are formidable in their performance. Latonia Moore balances vocal power with emotional vulnerability, presenting a believably complex Aida, and despite an apparent lack of acting-chemistry with Gwyn Hughes Jones as Radamès their musical partnership is excellent and deeply moving. DeYoung as Amneris is disappointingly distracting with distorted dark vowels which make the subtitles frustratingly necessary. This contrasts awkwardly with the bright and clearly produced English of her colleagues whose vocal projection on this occasion also outshines her own. The chorus of the ENO are thrilling. Definitely one to experience while you can.