Cod-Egyptian hokum it may be, dramatically flat it most certainly is, but Verdi’s Aida has plenty to say about the human condition. David McVicar recognises this, and in a staging that left some commentators cold his 2010 production focuses a lidless glare on not one but two eternal triangles: the tug of love for Radames between Amneris and Aida, and the unedifying power struggle between man, God and war.
Verdi’s treatment of the tale is curious, given the late place of Aida in his canon. His characters end the opera as they began it, doomed by events but unchanged by them, and the declamatory nature of the music extends as much to the duets as it does to the solo arias. Big ceremonial set pieces swamp the human drama in the early scenes, so during Acts Three and Four the composer has to play catch-up on his characterisation of the central trio and of Amonasro, Aida’s father.
Fear of God(s) is the mortar McVicar uses to bring coherence to Verdi’s plot, and a nasty vision of organised religion it is too. By avoiding recognisable or attributable customs he manages to traduce pretty well all faiths while directly offending none (there’s a distinct whiff of paganism in the eroticised eviscerations of Act Two), and the über-pageant of the Triumphal March becomes a canvas for Fin Walker to paint a whirl of religious hysteria with her sword-and-sandal choreography.
Fabio Luisi brings authority to the Royal Opera pit with a beautifully shaped, idiomatic reading, and even though the wind section was off colour on opening night, the strings responded exquisitely to Luisi’s phrasing of the Prelude while the brass rang out with brilliance during the opera’s great public moments.
The first tranche of performances in this revival is headed by Roberto Alagna as Radames and Olga Borodina as Amneris. Alagna is in great voice, unrecognisable from the tired tenor who partnered Elina Garanca in Carmen here a while back. For those who complain that Jean-Marc Puissant’s set is too dark, this singer at his peak brings gold enough to dazzle. Borodina, like Alagna, doesn’t move about much, yet her plangent mezzo is sufficient of itself to keep the ambivalence of Amneris’s tragedy in sharp focus.
Last year’s Aida, Micaela Carosi, has abruptly withdrawn from the production, citing pregnancy. Liudmyla Monastyrska deserves every plaudit for stepping in so late and singing with such confidence; and if her acting is rudimentary, she’s hardly the sole culprit. Even so, as an Aida of some experience she should be capable of offering more emotional truthfulness than this. Interior complexity seems to lie outside her range. As for the voice, I suspect that Monastyrska’s emphatic soprano would be better suited to slightly heavier roles.
Up to a point the low level of dramatic interplay in McVicar’s concept suits the work’s pageant-like nature; nevertheless it’s a shame that, of the main singers, only Michael Volle as Amonasro invests his character with a convincing inner life. His impassioned third-act duet with Aida shows up the stilted work elsewhere. Add to the mix some coarse background acting, notably from the guards who escort Radames to his doom in Act Four, and we have a revival blighted by inattention to detail. If you’re convinced (as I am, by and large) by David McVicar’s take on Aida, this is nearly a great evening. In crucial aspects, though, the 2011 manifestation falls short.