Aida - Royal Opera House, 27 April 2010 (first night)
When David McVicar so rudely declined to specify the setting for his new Royal Opera House Aida a couple of weeks ago, never did I surmise that the answer sealed behind his lips was "I don't know".
But with a set that resembles the innards of a burnt-out toaster and a cast like a collection of Dr Who's worst enemies, it's anyone's guess where we're supposed to be. Where we most certainly aren't is (a passing resemblance to Cairo Airport aside) Egypt. So in that respect McVicar's succeeded in his stated aim to banish preconceptions, start anew, all the usual stuff.
What he's failed to do is establish a coherent visual aesthetic in its place. The programme indicates set designer Jean-Marc Puissant (whose ballet designs I've admired greatly) swanned off to Jerusalem and Kabul in search of inspiration. But he could have come up with the resultant dingy revolving panel simply by looking in a skip. Or indeed a Vauxhall leather club, as reader Keith kindly pointed out on an earlier post.
Moritz Junge's costumes are much more attractive, and - bonus - the hierarchical society is clearly delineated - samurai armour for the warriors, droopy blue for Aida and the other slaves, zombie makeup for the scary priests. Amneris gets the best of all - Marianne Cornetti is unrecognisable in Adam Ant warpaint and giant mohican. Junge also deserves credit for concealing some of the biggest waistlines in showbiz so artfully with his drapes and panels.
It's fortunate the costumes do so much of the work, because the crowd scenes are under-directed, the 100+ cast spread out as messily as a Ryanair check-in. Not that I'm in favour of illustrating every word with movement or anything, but most of the time it's seriously hard to understand what's going on.
This being McVicar, we didn't have to wait long for blood and bewbs, conveniently served up together as Act I ended with topless ladies slicing up topless gents in a gory human sacrifice. There was barely time to pause for breath before Act 2 began with more half-dressed women performing some risible 'erotic' dancing. Human carcasses suspended above the rejoicing hordes in the triumphal march scene like so many Peking ducks reminded me (and this is so *not* a good thing) of Rupert Goold's unforgettably awful ENO Turandot.
McVicar's inspiration ran completely dry after the interval with the more intimate scenes of the last two acts. The stage was virtually bare, but at least here there was clear evidence the principal triangle had received some direction. None of them are naturally the strongest of actors, but each one gave by far the most convincing dramatic performance I've ever seen from them.
Vocally, they couldn't quite match up. Micaela Carosi wasn't as squally as the last couple of times I've heard her, but her range of timbre is limited and her intonation not great. That said, she looks and basically sounds like Aida, and there are very few sopranos around you can say that of at the moment.
Marianne Cornetti was a very solid if un-nuanced Amneris, the crowd favourite at ovating time.
Marcelo Alvarez made a surprisingly good Radames. Basically the voice is too light at the moment (perhaps it always will be), but he got all the notes and sang with ardour and commitment. He alone had the strength of presence required. A special mention too for Elisabeth Meister, quite exceptional as the High Priestess, and the impeccably-drilled chorus. The rest of the cast were not at all bad but hardly great.
They were all done a big favour by Nicola Luisotti, who kept stage and pit dynamics beautifully balanced. He got some polished playing out of the orchestra too, but was it really Aida? Despite (or perhaps because of) his nippy pace, his reading was lightweight and lacking in inflection - almost Mozartean. Some bigger, more expansive gestures here and there might have matched the scale of the drama.