Ellen Kent's Aida (Tour - Manchester)
Ellen Kent's Aida at Manchester Opera House is ideal for newcomers to the text, says Dave Cunningham.
Rademes (Sorin Pupu), captain of the guard, aspires to lead the Egyptian army in battle, hoping that victory will entitle him to marry his secret love, the slave girl Aida (Elena Dee).
However, Rademes is instead rewarded by the King offering him the hand of his daughter Amneris (Zarui Vardanean) in marriage. As Amneris is the mistress of Aida, the stage is set for a tragic outcome.
Opera is a demanding art form, relying on music and vocals, rather than a narrative, to generate an emotional response. This is easier said than done, but Ellen Kent's production of Verdi's Aida pretty much pulls it off.
The high vocal standards that open the show are maintained throughout. Despite wearing a most unflattering short tunic, Sorin Pupu is a commanding figure whose zealot's eyes make clear his ambition. The understated approach of conductor Nicolae Dohotaru emphasises the emotional intensity of Pupu's opening aria, which draws cries of "bravo" from the audience.
Elena Dee is equally impressive. Her soprano is not just technically astonishing, it brings out Aida's naked longing. Dee's voice conveys Aida's anguish in such a heartbreaking manner as to render the surtitles unnecessary. You don't need to read what she is saying as you can simply feel her pain.
It is hard for a company on a limited budget to achieve the grandeur suggested by Verdi's sweeping score. The famous victory march opens in fine style with a blast of flame and Chris Bishop's stunning fire juggling. But the duration of the music exceeds the available budget and the march dwindles into a rather stiff procession.
Kent sets an admirably brisk pace for the production and the vocals are so absorbing that the comparatively long opera does not outstay its welcome. Swift scene changes are made possible by Felix Bessonov's simple but highly effective backdrops being used as backgrounds.
Ellen Kent's commitment to the vocal and musical aspects of opera is so great that she tends to overlook the other aspects - such as the acting. This prevents her version of Aida from being a classic.
The background artists stand immobile and the principals over-use grand sweeping arm gestures. Although both Dee and Pupu deliver outstanding vocals, there is a lack of chemistry between the couple. Rademes and Aida are consumed by a fatal passion, but Dee and Pupu hardly even look at each other in the first two acts.
Opera is not an art form that appeals to everyone but, despite flaws, this is a production of Aida in which the vocal performances alone will demonstrate to anyone prepared to listen what all the fuss is about.
- Dave Cunningham