Saturday, 17 November 2007

Aida at ENO, or the Company partially redeemed and the critics shown to be fools

As regular readers will know, I have made no secret of my contempt for the present ENO management of John Berry and Loretta Tomasi, especially after the utter shambles which was Kismet at the tail end of last season. Thus, having followed the reviews of the first two productions of this season (Carmen and The Coronation of Poppea) I was thoroughly prepared to deliver the last rites on seeing the new production of Aida. This anticipated viewpoint was strengthened by a hatchet job of a review in The Guardian which suggested yet another production working totally contrary to the text, and the obsessive publicity surrounding the costumes. Contrary to all these anticipations this production is very solid, has some moments of absolute genius, some beautiful singing and playing and has been most outrageously treated by the critics of The Guardian and The Observer.

The production is opulent, but it is opulent to a purpose. Pyramids, hieroglyphics, Egyptian headdresses – the style certainly seemed convincingly Egyptian to me – a nice change from the endless parade of modernised productions we are so often forced to sit through. This achieves its greatest effect in the military parade that follows the Egyptian victory at the end of the second act. It is very easy for these ballet interludes in Verdi to be tedious. This was exciting with a distinctly military air including a stylised re-enactment of the battle just fought. The onstage brass were note and move perfect, and the offstage chorus also impressed. But the highlight was Radames’ triumphant entrance (which The Guardian critic ignored and The Observer critic turned up his nose at). The only other time I saw this opera, Radames was perilously borne in on a boat like object which the bearers looked as if they might drop, and he looked as if he might fall off at any moment. Here, he is born in on the back of an elephant, while dancers manipulate giant ears and a giant trunk. It is a real coup de theatre and completely appropriate to the moment. The other highlight of the production is the burying alive of our heroes at the conclusion, another problem moment, which is brilliantly solved.

Turning to the musical side of things. Here it has to be acknowledged there are some shortcomings. Both John Hudson as Radames and Jane Dutton as Amneris both take a little while to warm up. However, Dutton in particular is giving a powerful performance both vocally and dramatically by the second half. In Hudson’s case one slightly yearns for an over-powering tenor voice but accepting the fact that there are very few such voices available his is ultimately a serviceable performance. And the other performances are in the main stunning. Claire Rutter is an excellent Aida, her voice soaring over the orchestra, and Iain Paterson a very impressive Amonasro. The confrontation between Rutter, Paterson and Hudson in Act 3 is a particular highlight musically and dramatically and again illustrated the strong points of the production. When Radames surrenders his sword, he actually throws a sword down before the enraged priests. How often does one see such moments staged literally? It is very refreshing.

Finally, in the pit, Edward Gardiner drives the whole thing forward, again drawing fine, exciting playing from the ENO Orchestra. For possession of him alone the company deserves to be sustained.

Postscript...

Sunday night took me to the South Bank for the first visit in a four year residency from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I will leave it to my esteemed brother to explain why Janssons’s interpretation of the third movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony was wrong and confine myself to noting that I have heard this piece in concert on two previous occasions and it did not work for me. I felt it seemed like five chunks which didn’t quite go together, that it never seemed to reach the climax one always felt was around the corner. For me, Jansson’s performance was utterly compelling. Exciting where it needed to be, ethereal, other-worldly in the adagio, and an ending that did reach a climax. It was fascinating, as in Edinburgh to watch him conduct. At times he seems to do almost nothing and yet there is no flagging, or loss of precision and direction in the sound. One can see exact responses to gestures. It was a telling example of that most elusive of performing qualities – emanation. Finally, particular kudos have to go to the First Trumpet who made his tricky exposed sections simply sing. I’m not sure I can recall hearing a trumpet play so beautifully quietly before. A memorable evening, and an orchestra-conductor pairing that nobody should miss hearing. Full credit to the South Bank Centre for signing this deal.

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