Review: Aida at Leeds Town Hall (with commentary by Charles Eager)

Congratulations, dear Reader; you have been awarded a 2-4-1 deal with two reviews for Opera North’s Aida for the price of one i.e. for naught.  For the second time, Leeds Living sent both myself and my far more informed colleague, Charles Eager, to an event of high culture to gain a broader view.

I don’t know whether we should be flattered that the editor thought that our last joint review of Hamlet at the Leeds Playhouse was so good that we should do it again, or that he will continue to send us until we get it right.  Whatever, we duly presented ourselves at the magnificent Leeds Town Hall in ample time to take our seats for a night at the opera.  I’m hoping that our next outing might be another Marx Brothers/Queen album-inspired jolly, a day at the races, although I doubt it.

On entering the Town Hall I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia, because this is where my old school used to hold its annual Speech Day. As I was in the choir I would have been sitting where the orchestra was tonight, in front of the organ, and facing the audience, of which this time I was a member. Being on the mischievous side and, as the masters were facing the parents in the auditorium rather than we oiks behind them, once the proceedings were under way a few of us would start feigning a yawn and, as you will appreciate, this is a very contagious thing to do, so before long most of the parents would have their hands over their mouths. Ah, youth!

At this point, I must get the one negative of the evening out of the way. Although the room itself is magnificent, I have never been so uncomfortable in any performance space in my life. The seats in the middle of the floor are temporary affairs and the rows were placed far too close together, thus giving us all the legroom of a Sprinter railway carriage. Danny DeVito would have been struggling to get comfortable. Not only did this mean that my knees were causing me agony after about ten minutes, but also that the flimsy nature of the seats meant they were constantly being kicked by the people behind us as they shifted in their own chairs, searching for relief. Another problem with their positioning was that they were arranged one behind the other rather than staggered as in a normal theatre, so should you be sitting behind someone on the tall side, such as Charles and myself, you would have no chance of seeing what was going on. Things became so bad, that after the interval we decamped to some permanent seats at the very back of the hall, which gave a limited view behind a couple of pillars, but far preferable to the instruments of torture of the first half.

Enough of the moaning and on to the performance. If, like myself, you are an opera virgin, please take a tip and read the programme before kick-off. When you go see a play or musical, the first few minutes are used to set the scene and introduce the characters by name, but not in this opera. I gained some inkling as to the pecking order of each character, but their names and official titles were a mystery, apart from four of the leads. Unless you are fluent in Italian you also need an extra pair of eyes, as the libretto is displayed on screen to the side of the stage, making it akin to watching a Scandi-Noir thriller on BBC4.  That would not normally take much doing, but this production also employs a video display projected onto a precisely folded white cloth with atmospheric images of war zones and people suffering therefrom.  Then there was the action both on stage and in the choir, none of whom yawned, which was brilliantly choreographed as well as their singing superbly. The whole experience was overwhelming to the senses and turned a night out into an immersive experience.

To the plot. The action takes place in the time of the Pharaohs, when Egypt was having trouble with their neighbour to the south, Ethiopia, whose army had occupied part of their territory. That is the easy part,  There then follows a love triangle and a web of relationships which would put a soap opera to shame, so pay attention as there will be a test at the end:

The gods govern Egypt by sending instructions through the priests, notably the chief priest, Ramfis, who informs Radames, an army captain, that he has been chosen to lead the army of liberation to go sort the problem out. As you would imagine, this is good news as it boosts his standing in the community and also his chances of getting jiggy with Aida, an Ethiopian and the princess’ slave, when he returns as the conquering hero.  Fortunately, his feelings are reciprocated by Aida, so all would be good were it not for the fact that Amneris, the aforementioned Princess of Egypt, is just as enamoured with Radames as he is with Aida and it becomes obvious that her father, the king, is all for their marriage when the war is won.
Anyway, off he goes to sort things out on the front and, as you would expect, he comes back victorious, bringing some prisoners with him.  As a reward for his victory, the King of Egypt announces that Radames and Ramfis will be married and he also grants the general a wish. In order to give something to Aida, who is obviously miffed about the marriage, as is Ramades himself, he asks for all of the Ethiopian prisoners to be freed. After a bit of negotiation between Ramfis and the King of Egypt, it is decided that they will be spared death but kept as prisoners of war.  When this is agreed to and cannot be changed, it is revealed to the Egyptians what we have known for some time, that one of the prisoners is Amonasro, Aida’s father and King of Ethiopia. This is the point at which things start to go south, literally, as the Ethiopians regroup and have another go at insurgency, so the Egyptian army is mobilised again and plans are made to march them to the border. Don’t worry – we are nearly there now.

Radames and Aida have been secretly seeing each other and have planned to run away together to her native Ethiopia, but her father wants to know the route the Egyptian army will be taking so that he can get word home to have them ambushed.  Aida suggests that she and Radames set off before the army does so as to make their escape and asks which route they will take. Radames tells her but the conversation is overheard by the Ethiopian king who immediately reveals himself to the couple. Radames realises that he has betrayed his country and is distraught. Amneris, remember her, says that she will get him pardoned of treason if he will renounce his love for Aida.  He refuses both to do this and to put in a defence at his trial, so the priests order that he be entombed alive as his punishment. As the executioners are placing the stone over the tomb, Radames sees a shadow next to him which turns out to be Aida who has hidden there so that they may leave this life together and ascend to heaven as one.

If you are still with me, I’ll continue. I found all of this plot pretty easy to follow thanks to the titles and thought that the staging was brilliant. The production was performed in modern dress and the images projected on the screen showed photographs of contemporary devastation in the Middle East and North Africa.  I mentioned that the white sheet which acted as a screen was folded because it was done so skilfully that it enabled either one image to be shown or two simultaneously.  There was one thing which did jar about the updating of the piece and that was right at the beginning when Radames was miming small talk with another man and showing him something on his mobile phone, probably a meme of a sphinx.  Ramifa approaches him to say that he is awaiting a messenger with the name of the man who will lead the army to fight Ethiopia. The first thing which sprang to mind was why they didn’t text him, send him an email or just telephone! Other than that I could forgive the clash of cultures. There was another thing which confused me in that when Aida’s father appeared after he had been taken prisoner he had white plaster on his hands and wrists which crumbled when he moved his fingers. He then ceremoniously rubbed it off.

The singing and musicianship from all concerned was superlative, but I will leave it to my colleague to go into the details as he is far more qualified to do it than I. There is a test to find out who knows about classical music and who is winging it. You play them ’Spartacus’ and if they name it correctly they know what they are talking about.  If they say ‘Onedin Line’ they don’t. I can’t hear the William Tell Overture without thinking ‘Lone Ranger’. I also can’t hear the march which closes Act 2 of Aida without casting my mind back to the annual Children’s Day which was held at Roundhay Park until 1963 as it was played as the young girl chosen to be Queen for the day was crowned and paraded around the arena.

Take it away, Charles.

Thank you, Stan. I can’t claim any of the expertise that you promised, but I can offer a few thoughts, albeit with far fewer knee-slappers than your review!

Aida (or Aïda, as it used to be printed) was first performed in Cairo, Egypt on Christmas Eve, 1871, for the opening of its new Opera House, and had its Milanese première shortly after at La Scala in February 1872. It was commissioned by the then-Khedive (or Viceroy) of Egypt, Ismail Pasha. It is very much of its time, sharing the fascination with ancient cultures which possessed much of the imagination and scholarly interest of the nineteenth century.
It is also of its time in its sentimentality—something Verdi does very well. This combines with the historical interest in a beautiful if strange and sometimes jarring way. It has been pointed out often before that the opera’s musical text doesn’t make as much of the Egyptian redolence as does the verbal. This is despite the fact that Verdi was very interested in the antiquarian details, even having ‘historically informed’ trumpets and flutes made in order to further the sense of exoticism in the opera’s soundworld. You can hear these trumpets in the famous ‘Triumphal March’ and, for the fascinating and hugely entertaining history of Verdi’s ‘new, very loud hyper-flute’—which, you can imagine, is quite far from the Egyptian original he was trying to recreate—you can read Gabriela Cruz’s article ‘Aida’s Flutes’ in The Cambridge Opera Journal (from 2002).
As you can tell from the above quotation, not all the antiquarian interest was particularly well supported by historical reality. One early reviewer apparently remarked that Verdi had built a statue in the orchestra, but left the plinth on the stage. I’m not exactly sure of the meaning either, but it sounds like the historical re-imagination did not quite come off for this reviewer.
All the same, it is a wonderful experience to hear Verdi’s choir singing hymns—in Italian—to the goddesses Ptah or Isis. Indeed, these moving representations of religious faith and ritual make for the most beautiful parts of the opera. My personal favourite is the hymn from Act I, Scene ii, ‘Possente, possente, Fthà’ (‘Powerful, powerful Ptah’). Since Stan promised some expertise from me, I shall offer a few nerdy details.  The singing swaps between individual priestesses and the whole female choir of votaries to Ptah. The instrumentation is movingly and refreshingly bare: a harp simply plucks an Eb chord on each beat of the bar (and sounds, in so doing, lyre- or guitar-like), save for the last, where it shifts up a semitone to Fb whilst keeping Eb in the bass—a very tense and dramatic chord. The vocal melody follows this pattern, floating around, Eb, Fb, and D natural, before flowing gracefully down and back up the natural Eb minor scale—yet over a major chord, creating further interesting harmonies. In plain English, this means that Verdi creates a moving sense of sacred ceremony, and, accordingly, a great dramatic set piece. Throughout the night, whenever the Chorus of Opera North stand up to sing, it is a highlight.
With one exception, which is often a problem in Verdi. As already evident in the ‘hyper-flute’, the man liked a loud moment or two in his operas, particularly at moments of dramatic culmination. These are the moments when you can expect the entire orchestra, the choir, and all the vocal soloists each to be playing or singing at (at least) ff, and often fff or ffff (the latter being so many fs as to be meaningless). The effect is that a wall of almost indistinguishable sound is created, out of which one can hardly pick any good musical writing, if there is any!  I take this, however, as merely a temperamental difference between Verdi and me.
It was a delight, then, to hear the end of the opera, which, although marred by the creepiness rather than genuine tragedy of the final dramatic situation, managed to make a beautifully moving ending of ‘O terra addio’ (‘O earth, adieu’)—a duet between Aida and Radames, with some support from Amneris and the choir (who reuse melodic material from ‘Possente Fthà’, earlier in the opera). The final moment of the opera is given to Amneris and the choir. They repeat the word ‘pace‘, very quietly, on the same, literally monotonous Db (over a Gb chord) and with a homogenous rhythm, creating, not for the first time in the opera, music reminiscent at once of the solemnity if not the substance of European plainchant and at the same time invoking a fairly convincing impression of ancient Egyptian religious music. More important than its reminiscences and invocations, however, is how deeply moving this ending is.—Would that the rest of the opera were more replete with ‘pace‘, and fewer cymbal crashes.  As it is, the rare quiet moment stands out especially well.
The opera is fairly long, and although Verdi does notate recitatives and arias in the score, the whole thing can seem a bit undifferentiated and become somewhat hard to follow. The plot is somewhat involved and based on recognitions and reversals rather than on-stage action and, as Stan rightly said, one spends quite some time figuring out who is who, exactly what who is doing to whom, and wondering why.   I say, the best moments are the moments of quiet prayer at the beginning of Act I Sc ii, the beginning of Act III (‘O tu che sei d’Osiride’—brief but marvellous), and at the end of the opera.
So much for the opera itself—and on to this production.  As you can tell, given the circumstances of its commission and première, this opera was intended by all involved to be a moneyed and prestigious event—and a great opportunity to indulge the nineteenth-century taste for lavish and detailed theatrical sets, costumes, etc. This lavishness characterises many of the landmark and classic productions, which are nicely noted by the programme. Annabel Arden’s production for Opera North, however, is a concert staging, with only the barest elements of scenic decoration to put us into the play’s theatrical and imaginative world.
The main reason for Opera North’s concert stagings at the Town Hall (rather than the usual Grand Theatre) are first and foremost practical.  Certain works require a certain size of orchestra, and the Leeds Town Hall allows a much larger force of musicians that the orchestra pit at Leeds Grand Theatre.  A result of this allowance is that the orchestra is on stage, not under it, and so vastly limits the room for actors, sets, etc. Tim Alberry’s production over the Christmas holiday of Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night recently put the limitations and opportunities of the orchestra-crowded stage to great, imaginative effect, using the opera’s space to mark the no-man’s land which separated the Scottish, French, and German regiments which populate that WWI drama.
Annabel Arden’s production is a bit odder.  Stan has already remarked on the inconsistency of having mobile phones and human messengers, as in a classical tragedy—which world are we in?—and I must say some parts did not seem totally coherent.  In Arden’s modern dress, Aida’s mother (a silent part) wears a headscarf—presumably a sign of her Muslim faith.  It was very worrying then to watch her embrace apostasy as she joined the choir and sang hymns to every pagan Egyptian god in the pantheon!  Later, when Aida’s father comes on stage, as Stan says, his hands look as though they have been dipped in flour, or cocaine, and, as it flaked slowly off, it looked as though he was suffering from exceptionally bad eczema.  If this was supposed to be some symbol to do with war or empire, the silliness of it undermined any effect it might have been intended to have.  Another inconsistency between text and production came in the references to Aida as a young maiden.  Alexandra Zabala, who played Aida, can most definitely be described as an excellent soprano soloist, but she cannot be described with these former words!  It is praiseworthy to endeavour to do something different with this opera, but I remain unconvinced and unpersuaded by the modernity and bareness of the staging.
One of the many great things about opera, however, especially when as well performed as this was, is that there are so many elements to any one production—the composition of the music; the dramaturgy of music, words, and staging; the beauty of the words and ideas themselves; the quality of the musicianship among both orchestra and singers; the acting, costumes, sets, lighting projections, etc.—that, even if a production is not the most stirring, there is always something to love.
There is most certainly much to be loved in this Aida.  Raphael Rojas plays the heroic tenor role, Radames and, as at all of his Opera North appearances, puts in a beautiful, heartfelt performance.  Alexandra Zabala’s Aida I have already complimented, but not nearly as much as her fine performance deserves.  Alessandra Volpe’s Amneris was one of the most moving parts of the evening, and she was excellently staged as a sort of Sophia Loren lookalike, even if the production at points risked over-sexualising her—a choice which detracts focus from the beauty of her character and of the singer’s performance.
Other singers were unimpeachable and of excellent quality, though it was a shame that some of the bass soloists (two major characters are basses, one a baritone) got lost behind orchestra and choir when in the bottom of their range. As always, the Orchestra of Opera North gave a flawless and stirring performance. We are lucky to have an orchestra of this quality in Leeds and audiences of this production are lucky to enjoy the thoughtful, sensitive approach of conductor Sir Richard Armstrong. As always, Richard Moore’s lighting was effective and well suited at all times to what the production asked. As I have said, the sets and costumes were minimal, but perhaps could have been less than they were and still to the opera’s benefit.
Although not flawless, I would recommend this production—chiefly on the great strength of the soloists, choir, and orchestra. As Stan said above, it is not the clearest, so I’d recommend briefly studying the plot before going—and perhaps the score if you have the ability, time, and inclination—in order to get the most out of it.

Further performances of Aida will take place at Leeds Town Hall on 8, 11,29 and 31 May.
Box Office: 0113 376 0318

Photographs provided by Opera North.

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