This is what I had always imagined the opera to be like - a climactic scene from a classic Godfather movie, with beautiful women in tiaras escorted by dinner-jacketed men, all gripped by an unsurpassable emotional experience. But the nearest I had ever got to the experience was hearing Luciano Pavarotti singing "Nessun dorma" as soundtrack to the 1990 World Cup.
So, when I was sent out to Zurich just before Christmas, to see an early performance of the Aida which Harvey Goldsmith is bringing to Earls Court next month - the "ultimate lad" despatched to experience the ultimate art-form - my expectations were naturally high. Maybe the Mafia-style murder and intrigue would all be confined to the stage, but surely the emotions and glamour would seep their way to me across the audence.
So it was that, after far too many gin and tonics, I made my way to the Swiss arena that would house Giuseppe Raffa's new staging of Verdi's Egyptian fantasy. Armed with a backstage pass, I could investigate the workings of what was to prove to be a simply collossal production. And, as I was shown through a labyrinth of corridors, elbowing my way past dozens of little Cleopatras scurrying about and speaking in strange tongues, I felt just like a time-traveller who had accidentally landed on planet Ancient Egypt.
Passing the star dressing-rooms, I noted the strange names on each door: Aida, Amneris, Radames, Maestro. Maestro? Surely no one can seriously call themselves the "Maestro". I presumed it must be a piss-take, like a mug with "I'm the boss" stamped on it. I was wrong.
Every now and then, brief blasts of singing punctuated the general buzz - my first taste of the sheer power of the operatic voice. And, as I made my way across the back of the stage, the true enormity of the production became apparent: a gargantuan steel structure towered above us, its scaffolding criss-crossing behind the backdrop's facade. As crew members busily laid cables and checked fittings, I half expected to see Mick Jagger or Bono saunter round for a quick sound-check.
Wandering out in front of the stage, though, my illusions were shattered: in place of plush royal boxes and sumptuous deep-red velvet, I found only row upon row of plastic chairs stretching into the distance. This was going to be real "opera for the masses": if this was an elite, it was certainly a big one! But then, that's why I was there - to give a culturally naive view to the uninitiated.
As for the stage area, it was just a huge white mass awaiting the vibrant projections that would substitute for set changes. It made total sense to me, a great way to ease the already complicated logistics of staging such a show. Maestro Raffa's last incarnation of Aida apparently incorporated not only huge sets but live animals as well. He had obviosly decided to repeat his travelling circus, but without the crap.
As the arena finally filled up, I decided it was time to take my seat. The usher pointed me to probably the least advantageous position in the whole place: right at the top, in the very back row. This is where my earlier G&Ts came into their own. Normally, of course, in true British fashion, I'd just have taken my seat and quietly complained to myself. But, with a self-important flush of alcohol to the brain, I marched up to the management and, after much pontificating, got what I wanted - a great seat in a flash box, with a glass of champagne thrown in as well.
It was now that I realised how grateful I should be to a learned fellow journo from another paper for the quick plot summary he had just given me. Aida, it appears, is the slave of the Egyptian princess Amneris. Unbeknown to the Egyptians, however, she is herself a princess - an Ethiopian one - and has just fallen in love with Radames, a captain in the Egyptian army who, as (bad) luck would have it, has just been chosen to lead an attack on her fellow Ethiopians. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, his reward for defeating her father's army is to be given the Egyptian princess's hand in marriage. Eventually, tricked into revealing the Egyptian army's plans of attack to Aida's father, Radames is found guilty of treason, and both he and she come to a sticky if romantic end, walled up in an airless tomb. How this flimsy plot was going to be stretched out over three and a half hours was beyond me.
But then, as the Romanian orchestra launched into the first bars of Verdi's score, the hieroglyphic-emblazoned backdrop burst into life. Aida is supposed to be a beautiful, lithe, young, black woman: our soprano, however, was more Diana Dors than Diana Ross. But I suppose one needs to be that size to produce such an ear-shattering volume. As the singing began, I realised that any fears I'd had that I would be bored because the piece was being sung in Italian were quite unfounded. Beforehand, I couldn't imagine anything holding my attention for almost four hours without my understanding a single word, but as the exchanges between Aida, Radames and the King and Queen of Egypt swelled into a sea of sound, language itself became irrelevant.
The Swiss can seem straight-laced, but this audience gave huge waves of applause after every aria. I found this quite disconcerting to begin with: it seemed to interupt the flow. I was assuered, though, that such enthusiasm would never happen in England. As the story unfolded, moving from the palace to the temple, the full impact of the projections became apparent, swathing the stage in rich blues and golds. During the first two acts, I sat there waiting for the "March of the Hebrew Slaves" - a piece of music that my learned friend had assured me I would recognise. And to my surprise I did - although my even more learned friends now tell me it's actually known as the "Triumphal March from Aida" (the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" comes from another Verdi opera, apparently). Either way, this scene was immense, with hundreds of slaves and soldiers joining an already vast array.
Even though this visual onslaught illustrated well the pomp and ceremony, it did all feel somehow superfluous. The singers seemed lost in the grandeur and, more importantly, their voices were in a constant battle to overcome the scale of the staging. Maestro Raffa's term "operama" was most definitely being realised with the utmost gusto.
Still, as they probably never say in the opera world, it's not over till the fat lady sings. After the interval, the mood changed considerably. Gone were the overblown excesses of the first two acts and, despite the huge stage, we were treated to an intimacy that had been previously absent. With no more than three or four singers on stage at any one time, the emotion and beauty of their voices sent all the shivers down my spine that I could have desired. As Aida and Radames nestled in the neon heart of a giant blue Sphinx, their voices ached with the inevitability of their predicament, and, as they strolled to their fate, blending in to the projected patterns, I for one was left gasping for more.
`Aida': 23-25 April, Earls Court, London Sw5. Booking: 0171-373 8141Reuse content