Review: Opera: Aida Grand Theatre, Leeds, to 11 Oct, then touring to Nottingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Hull : Forget elephants, this cast is strong

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Say "grand opera" and most people will probably think of Aida, preferably with a cast of thousands. It is perennially popular, yet it is surprisingly seldom done - in Britain at least. Currently Covent Garden and Opera North are the only companies to have full-scale productions in their repertory. Is it that they are afraid to disappoint the expectation of elephants? Or is it the difficulties of casting it?

Whatever, none of this has deterred Opera North from launching its new season with a splendid revival of Philip Prowse's 1986 production. It is strongly cast, using only British singers, and provides visual spectacle without using vast numbers or live animals of any kind.

Prowse relocated the action to Verdi's 19th century, thus underlining the opera's imperialist overtones. Amneris and the ladies of the Egyptian court might have been painted by Ingres, while Ramfis and his priests appear as black-clad mullahs, though Clive Bayley made an unusually mild and restrained high priest.

Aida, the slave, wore black throughout, and was barefoot and manacled for the first half. Josephine Barstow, adding another role to her distinguished roster in Leeds, needs no finery to hold our attention. The intensity and eloquence of her acting, the wonderful shaping of the musical phrases, brought her Aida to life. Unfalteringly, she spun often slender threads of sound to magical effect.

And she needed to compensate for the dreadful woodenness of Edmund Barham's Radames. His voice has the necessary resonance, if not the ideal liquid lyricism, but he is of the old non-acting school of opera singers - seemingly indifferent not only to the blandishments of Amneris (Sally Burgess), but also to the entreaties of his beloved Aida.

Barstow and Burgess made an effective contrast: Barstow slender in black, proud yet submissive, Burgess in swirling cream skirts, making much play with a large fan, although by the final act she too was in black. Their confrontation in Act 2 was tremendous.

Jonathan Summers came on strongly as a big, shaven-headed Amonasro, and Jeremy White was an effective king. There were no weak links in the cast. Even the messenger (Keith Mills) and the off-stage priestess (Pauline Thulborn) made strong impressions. Perhaps it helped to have an Italian conductor. Giuliano Carella led an exciting, dynamic performance, and obtained some fine con amore playing from the English Northern Philharmonia.

Prowse's production makes good use of an eclectic mix of oriental references - blinds, Persian rugs, Turkish Delight, quasi-Arabic script, facemasks, a pyramid and obelisks in the Nile scene; but also the night sky in Act 3, bricked up for the final catastrophe. This production has worn well, and it is the best that Aida has had in Britain for many years.

Booking: 0113 222 6222