Aida is famously a grandiose four-act opera, dramatically recounting a tragic story of forbidden love amidst the conflict-ridden backdrop of Ancient Egypt. Opera North have turned the tables, drawing out the relevance of the story to the current political world by setting the opera in the modern day.
Perhaps even more boldly, Opera North choose to expose the orchestra. They are the centre-stage focal point of the production. Unconstrained by the pit, their sound resonates throughout Usher Hall. In this way, not only does the orchestra contribute its warm, full-bodied accompaniment, but the movements of the players also adds to the visual spectacle. Violin bows move in unison, conductor Sir Richard Armstrong provides commanding direction, and the triumphant lifting of the trumpets catches the eye. These movements are necessary and purposeful, but when on display like this, become even more artistically expressive.
The cast’s voices are resplendent. The duet between Amneris (Allesandra Volpe) and Aida (Alexandra Zabala) is a personal highlight. Volpe’s voice slices through the music, warmed by Zabala’s sincere tone. Their characteristic rivalry is undeniable – and yet their voices combine to create moving harmonies with seeming ease. As hateful as Amneris appeared, her redemption only became sweeter for it; Volpe portrayed Amneris with complexity and skill.
There are several astounding moments to appreciate Zabala’s vocal control. She suspends high register notes that soar softly above the orchestra, sending a feeling of frisson throughout the audience. My only qualm with the characterisation lies with the chemistry between Aida and Radames; their relationship feels a little impersonal and not quite as desperate as I would have desired.
Joanna Parker’s set design is simplistically rugged. She has created a simple, atmospheric impression of a set using projections of war-time images onto suspended drapes above the stage. The chorus, like the orchestra, contribute to more than the music. They’re subtle but effective – a collective gasp, a movement, an expression is all that is needed to add to the quality of a scene.
Opera North have delivered this ambitious opera with elegance and striking emotion. Justifiably setting the tragic love story in the present day and placing strong emphasis on the orchestra and singing, this rendition of Aida left the audience cheering bravo in astonished applause.
PHOTOS: Opera North