Aida, Royal Opera House, London; A Nitro at the Opera, Linbury Studio, London

What exactly are those hands trying to say?
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The Independent Culture

I don't know about you, but any programme that devotes three pages to telling its readers that (a) gnomic equals genius, and (b) not adoring the work of that genius indicates failure on our part rather than his, sends my hubrisometer into over-drive. Peep! Peep! Peep! There it goes. Peep! Peep! Peep! There it goes again. What am I reading? Why, the programme for Robert Wilson's Aida at Covent Garden. "Do not forget to hear the light!" exhorts Dr Eduardo Benarroch in the last line of his excitable essay on the cult director-designer; having first detailed Wilson's rather disdainful view of those poor boobies who'd be singing Verdi's most demanding arias while learning how to keep their arms fixed in a complex series of gestures that bear no symbolic relation to the sung text.

Far be it from me to defend singers whose default acting is modelled on silent movies, but I'm jolly glad that I didn't read Dr Benarroch's absurd panegyric before watching Aida. I'm also jolly glad that I skipped the first night - the one with the loud boos and the bravos - in favour of Sir Charles Mackerras's superb Beethoven 7 at the Royal Festival Hall. But that's another story and the growling contra-bassoons of the Philharmonia - reinstated by Mackerras - have no place here. For amidst the hoo-hah, the hyperbole, the veneration and the vilification of Wilson's production, one small matter appears to have been all but forgotten; the score. Yes, the singing of this somewhat so-so cast might not be ideal for Aida's extraordinary "naked vocalism" - though Johan Botha's tricky switch from heldentenor to Italian tenor as Radames should be commended, as should his conscientious observation of the cruel diminuendo at the close of Celeste Aida - but under Antonio Pappano, the orchestra of the Royal Opera House deliver a ravishingly tender and emotionally intelligent account of Verdi's opera.

Is this enough of a reason to go? I'm not altogether sure. Suspicious as I am of extrinsic gestural concepts, this is less a case of the Emperor's new clothes than the Emperor's old clothes. The look of Wilson's Noh-influenced Aida is not so very different from that of his Woyzeck or The Temptation of St Anthony - which throws up a mass of questions over how much a director should adapt to his material - while the direction is often counter-intuitive and unsympathetic to the individual physiques of the cast; few of whom are expressive enough musicians to deliver characterisation through voice alone. Furthermore, since there were anomalies aplenty in the movement, I've a feeling Wilson might not be the best manager of rehearsals. But what stops me poo-pooing Aida is the way in which his concept encourages attention to the score and, consequently, to Pappano. The arc from privacy and unspoken feeling, through the realisation of those feelings and public action upon them, to the bitter end that unites Aida (Norma Fantini) and Radames in death is exquisitely drawn. And to suggest that nothing happens on stage is wrong. Wilson's lighting is almost neurotically sensitive to the music; so much so that while he shows a tin-ear for the immense physical demands made on his singers - especially towards Ildiko Komlosi's straitjacketed Amneris - he's preternaturally alert to the subtlest shifts in orchestration. Much of his production is breathtakingly beautiful, as the stage assumes the golden, silver, blue, dim and dark cloths of Yeats's "night and light and the half-light" in response to a flicker of colour from oboe, cello or flute. Only one scene is properly static, and that - the final scene of the opera, all black and electric blue - has the kind of mesmerising effect that Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Tristan attempted and, by dint of balance problems, failed. Here the sound and light ends as slowly and surely as the air in Radames's tomb and Egyptian drama, Italian music and a Texan director's re-interpretation of Japanese theatre meld into one, at last.

The audience for the second night of Aida - the title role of which was last taken by a black soprano at Covent Garden in 1970 - was, as ever, 99.9 per cent white. Does this indicate a lack of interest in opera among London's black population? Apparently not. Last Sunday over 800 black listeners - and maybe 100 white ones - turned up at the Royal Opera House for Nitro, a thrillingly over-subscribed day of operas and arias sung, workshopped and written by black performers and composers which, at the behest of the Royal Opera House, saw not the performers but their audience captured on video at every event. Why? Don't even go there! For many this was their first visit to the building. Yet the questionnaire they were asked to fill out on leaving didn't ask whether it would also be their last. One formidable Trinidadian matriarch aside - who'd been coming to Covent Garden since the 1960s - all involved expressed a perceived lack of entitlement to this supposedly public space. Clearly the Royal Opera House has its work cut out if its audience is to become a fraction as diverse in age and ethnicity as those of Opera North or the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Nitro are promising a return visit; a bigger and longer affair that is set to include an expanded version of one of the three short operas premiered at the Linbury Studio that day by director Bill Bankes-Jones, conductor Yoran Zorn and Nitro's excellent cast. Of these, the finest was Trinidadian composer Dominique Le Gendre's deftly coloured, expertly paced, inventive, humane and poignant Bird of Night; which featured an outstanding performance from Jacqueline Miura. Who? Exactly. A lovely singer with a sweet, clear mezzo voice, easy high notes, a gracious, sympathetic presence, excellent diction, quick musical wit, a slim figure and a very pretty face. Oh, and one enormous handicap to being cast in a major role in this country; her colour, which, as the droves of young black opera singers leaving Britain for America would indicate, remains a serious problem. Nitro did an amazing thing last weekend; they stormed the Bastille. But the main stage of the Royal Opera House, like many others, remains closed to all but a shamefully tiny handful of black singers and its seats are, in terms of popular perception, likewise off-limits. Let's hope that Nitro makes it into the main auditorium next time and that Le Gendre might kick things forward into the 21st century by proving that there's more to black opera than Scott Joplin and the Chevalier Saint-Georges.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'Aida': Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 28 Nov

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