Although it’s no secret that I tend to keep my calendar rammed full of various cultural and artistic diversions, I must admit that opera is not something I usually spend my hard-earned cash on. In fact other than a very special experience in Verona of Rigoletto, and something at Sadler’s Wells which I hardly felt comfortable fully labelling ‘opera’, I’ve never actually been.
This isn’t because I am in any way adverse to the artform, but put simply I just don’t know enough about it for a production to have any chance of vying for my attention amongst all the other events I’m already salivating at the thought of. And I suspect that in this tendency I am not alone, particularly amongst others in my age group.
So when an invitation from the Royal Opera House to be one of their guests for the dress rehearsal their current revival of Aida found its way to me, my acceptance came with a genuine sense of curiosity.
But now for the confession: despite all that, as I awoke Tuesday morning and headed to Covent Garden, my mind had practically already made itself up — I was going to appreciate and enjoy the opera, but not too much… probably. My attentions might wear thin somewhere in that 2 1/2 hours, but I’d latch back on by the end of it all and leave the theatre with a general sense of fulfilment for my experience. I’d come home and be inspired to write something about how well the whole thing was done, and how you just need to go with an open mind and allow the beauty and drama of it all to overcome you.
Note: that is (clearly) not the article I am writing now.
In reality, the only thing you need to do is get yourself inside the theatre and into a seat, because once you’re there and the curtain comes up David McVicar’s Aida grabs you by the gut and doesn’t let go. It is stormy, evocative, cruel, tender, raw, suspenseful, stunning, and entirely poignant. I’m honestly not sure I have ever in my life exited a performance in more of a thrall. What also struck me was that all the elements of this production keep the focus firmly on the heart of Verdi’s masterpiece: the helplessness and anguish of the three key characters (Radames, Amneris and Aida) amidst the cruel and overwhelming phenomenon that is war.
This was a a fantastic opera for a newbie such as myself, and I would highly, highly recommend the production to anyone opera-curious. Firstly, (as I’ve come to learn through my experiences of the Royal Ballet in the past year) the sophistication and artistry of a ROH production are simply in another league and well-worth experiencing, particularly if you’re taking a chance on something unfamiliar. Secondly, McVicar and his team have created an Aida which feels very contemporary and accessible. Though reviews during last year’s premiere were mixed, I adored most the elements which so many others criticised, and felt the sparse industrial-style sets and ambiguous egyptian/samurai/old world setting were highly evocative and actually made the story feel more timeless.
Of course the production was not also without its flaws. Most of the second Act offered too much of a spectacle for my taste, and failed to give real weight to the story. All of the pomp, celebrations and in-your-face orgies that accompanied Radames’ defeat of the Ethiopians in the act simply felt hollow and distracting when compared, for example, to the breathtakingly intense bloody sacrificial ritual in Act 1 or the sparse character-driven latter half.
But overall, did I enjoy it? I did, and fantastically at that. But that’s not (I think), necessarily the crux of point I was invited for. Our guides at the ROH made it quite clear that they were interested in how ‘non-opera people’ would react to Aida. Well, I think you can judge that from the above, but with that question in mind what I left the theatre mulling over was whether now, after enjoying a single production so much, would opera truly have more of a standing chance on this 20-something’s cultural radar?
The answer is yes, but only just.
I’ll be writing more on that topic later, so check back soon…
Aida runs at the Royal Opera House from March 11 – 15 April.
Note that Aida’s original leading lady, Micaela Carosi (who performed during this dress rehearsal), has recently withdrawn from the run due to pregnancy and is being replaced by Liudmyla Monastyrska.