Look, no elephants. Those for whom Verdi's Aida is a cast of thousands and one big, triumphal walk-down have been pre-warned. Nothing, of course, could be further from the spirit of this opera than productions where you go out humming the spectacle. Tradition has not served it well in this respect. Aida is a chamber opera, an opera about individuals isolated, trapped by their own circumstance. It's about the pull between public duty and private passion. Apart from one scene, one celebrated grand march, it's actually a very intimate opera. But tell that to the audience at the Verona arena.
So shouldn't I be rejoicing in the belated arrival at Covent Garden of the director Robert Wilson, trailing his awesome reputation abroad for pure, minimalist, colour-coded stagings? Emphatically yes, and emphatically no. There is something eerily beautiful about the look of his shows. He works with colour and light and shadow to hypnotic effect. His characters become figures in a symbolic landscape, seemingly illuminated (or not) from within. They move as if on castors. Their highly stylised gestures turn them into human hieroglyphics. Wilson's costumes (Issey Miyake rip-offs) suggest a contemporary take on Japanese Noh theatre. It's like no Aida you've ever seen.
But when I spoke just now of "an opera of individuals", I might have qualified that further by specifying "human beings". The real problem with Wilson's Aida is that it's bloodless. Sterile. What price passion? Verdi turned cardboard characters into people; Wilson turns people into cardboard characters. What remains is not so much a production, more an exhibit.
Comparisons have been drawn with Peter Sellars, that other controversial director, and his hybrid brand of operatic stylisation. But Sellars uses his variant on Baroque hand gesture as a channel for the expression. Wilson's gestures look and feel like an end in themselves. Where Sellars liberates his performers, Wilson seems to inhibit them. It's like watching mannequins. The people vanish.
Or they refuse to. When Ildiko Komlosi's imperious Amneris took centre-stage for the penultimate scene - her big solo moment - she did so with an abandon that physically had little to do with the rest of her performance, still less with Robert Wilson. If there had been scenery to chew, Komlosi would have chewed it. I don't know what happened, but Komlosi seemed to abandon the production altogether and the evening came alive. Operatic emotions were suddenly writ very large indeed. In the pit, Antonio Pappano let rip and the house ignited. Gosh, it was good. Just like the old days and only a couple of hours late.
Which is not to suggest that the musical values were not high throughout. They were. Pappano conducted magnificently with a wonderful sense of style, shape, and drama. But it was hard reconciling his warm-blooded account of the score with the forensic pallor of the staging. I can imagine this innate contradiction working supremely well in Baroque opera. But not Verdi.
The Verdi style, though, was well-served by the principals. The evening's big surprise for me was the Radames of Johan Botha. I'd always thought of him as a bit of a bruiser, but here he tempered the heroics with real finesse. For once you could believe that Radames, the lover, might win out over Radames, the warrior. Besides, any tenor who can support a real diminuendo on the difficult high B-flat at the close of "Celeste Aida" (most resort to belting it) is my kind of tenor.
My kind of Aida has a more beautiful sound than Norma Fantini, an ability to float sound as the breeze might carry it over the Nile. Fantini has more edge than that, and this coupled with a shortness at the top means she's too often pushing to make (or not) the high notes. Still, there's an authentic plangency to the colour, an affected but affecting way with phrasing, and real presence. Even if it's hard pretending you're not one step away from Madame Tussauds.
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