Stripped of colour and ornament, pharaohs, hieroglyphs and all the panoply that fed into 19th-century Egyptomania, Verdi’s Aida remains rebelliously intact. Two countries are embattled, two people from opposite sides – Egypt and Ethiopia – fatefully in love. The story is ancient, the politics nonspecific. War, whether camouflaged by the imperatives of passion or religion, is always to the fore. Verdi’s music is the binding force, with grand choruses, virtuosic solos and an orchestration of seductive but sinister detail: those serpentine low woodwind solos, the baleful low brass, the trumpet fanfares so shameless and brash they epitomise totalitarian power.
Into this cast-iron musical mould, Robert Carsen has poured his molten modern setting for the Royal Opera House, the first new production of the season, conducted by Antonio Pappano. Egypt is sketchily but determinedly evoked in the temple-like structure of Miriam Buether’s designs: severe grey blocks interrupted only by a flash of colour in carpet or flag, or in the boxy suits favoured by Amneris (Agnieszka Rehlis), daughter of the king of Egypt but surely a scion of the house of Trump. We are in an any-place regime where the militia holds sway and photorealist icons of the ruler are the only allowable decoration. Military uniforms – costumes by Annemarie Woods – conjure the faceless extremes of war, from the khaki drabness of battle to the peaked-cap glory of victory.
Verdi’s work, premiered in Cairo in 1871, rises to a majestic climax in the celebrated triumphal march of Act 2. This is where you put the elephants if you have them; horses and lions too, if you fancy. The challenge is how to sustain the drama after all that spectacle without it being an anticlimax. In Carsen’s staging, the spoils are not living creatures but Egypt’s own dead. Coffins are removed one by one, a disturbing reversal of this scene’s usual additive, trophy-on-trophy process. The second half ebbs to an intimate finale, with a score of orchestral subtlety and invention that points towards masterpieces yet to come, namely Don Carlos and Otello. Pappano, and the ROH musicians, opened our ears to Verdi’s genius, through pacing, texture, balance.
Not all worked on first night. There was some wayward intonation from various quarters, which will settle. The Italian tenor Francesco Meli, as the Egyptian war hero Radames, reminded us of the cruel difficulty of tackling the heights of Celeste Aida only minutes after curtain up. He came into his own, however, in the vital love exchanges with Aida. As the enslaved Ethiopian princess of the title, the Russian soprano Elena Stikhina ranged from seemingly, and sometimes actually, underpowered to magnificent, but she is always sympathetic and engaging. Rehlis, the Polish mezzo-soprano making her Royal Opera debut, has striking presence and a potent, clotted vocal tone, though Italian vowels were hard to locate. Soloman Howard’s Ramfis, and Ludovic Tézier as the Ethiopian king Amonasro, fine singers both, commanded attention at every entry. The night belonged above all to the chorus. Their precision, and the exciting fortissimos and whispers this work demands, from the men especially, made them the stars.
Lest we were grabbling for things to worry about last week, two events took on the world, one philosophically, the other environmentally. For its annual staging, Blackheath Halls Opera, an exemplary enterprise without age limit and open to all, chose Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (book by Hugh Wheeler after Voltaire, mercifully shortened here). Conducted by Christopher Stark, directed by Sebastian Harcombe and designed by Elliott Squire, this gallop from disillusionment to hope was full of zest and joy. If perfection is your priority, go elsewhere. If heart, soul and inspirational music-making are more your thing, this is the place.
The alchemy lies in uniting youth and adult choruses, students from Trinity Laban, local children and a pro-am orchestra, with first-class soloists. Nick Pritchard, singing Candide, is one of the best younger generation tenors around, lyrically gifted, every word clear, able to act, in all respects ideal. Frederick Long (the hopelessly optimistic Pangloss), Sarah Pring (a wickedly funny Old Lady) and rising star Ellie Neate (tender and persuasive as Cunegonde) led a lively cast who all deserve credit. The final chorus raised roof and spirits, a soaring end to an affecting evening.
As part of the Southbank Centre’s season-opening weekend, Manchester Collective performed Michael Gordon’s Weather, a cult 1997 work for string ensemble and electronics. With visuals by the Spanish film-maker Carlos Casas and new, additional sounds by the field recordist Chris Watson, climate disaster is the focus. As Gordon’s music pulsated and shuddered in restless, unravelling patterns, huge images played before our eyes: desert rock, shrinking glaciers, an eroding East Anglian coast, a glistening rainforest. The 20 amplified players gave their all to this tiring score, standing barefoot on a shiny stage that looked like a slick of black oil. This work, noisy, sobering, dizzying, offers no easy conclusions. Nor is it one to forget, which may be the point.
Star ratings (out of five)
Manchester Collective ★★★★
Aida is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 12 October
Candide is at Blackheath Halls, London, until 2 October