Magazine article The Spectator

Duty Called

Magazine article The Spectator

Duty Called

Article excerpt

Opera North's production of Aida, which I saw on tour in Manchester, is an odd hybrid, possibly reflecting the nature of the opera itself. The sets would serve for any moderately traditional, fairly lavish production of the old war-horse, while the costumes are mid-19th century, setting up a contrast which, so far as I could see, serves little purpose. I may be unloading my own dissatisfaction with the piece on to the director and designer Philip Prowse, but the whole show gave me the impression of a sense of unbridgeable gaps between elements in what Verdi for a long time regarded as his final opera. The public music of military preparation and celebration, though effective in its Meyerbeerian mode, doesn't meld with the private music-drama which increasingly takes over: that is shown by the tedium of `Celeste Aida', private sentiments being uttered in a public manner.

One thing that never fails to amaze me is the difference in the level of interest and genuine invention between the first two acts and the second half. In that respect Aida is rather similar to its immediate predecessor Don Carlos, which very evidently gets finer and finer as it proceeds, and also ends with (almost) a love-death duet. But in the earlier opera the politics come alive for us, partly because the text is much more persuasive, partly because it is easier to get worked up about repressive Catholic behaviour versus decency than about ancient Egyptians and two-dimensional duty versus love.

In Manchester the casting was strong, though idiosyncratic. The most compelling performances came from Jonathan Summers, an Amonasro both powerful of voice and psychologically detailed, and the Amneris of Sally Burgess, who gives a new slant to Verdi's most sympathetic mezzo villainess-heroine. Burgess has an irrepressible sauciness, which she employs to excellent effect in her early scene with the heroine, making Aida as nervous as any fairly perceptive person would be given that sort of equivocal friendliness. Later on her voice lacks the last degree of weight which Verdi calls for in the superb judgment scene, but her condemnation of the priests is still gravely impressive. There is no British singer whose performances I look forward to more.

About Josephine Barstow's Aida my feelings are mixed. It is heroic of her to undertake the role at so advanced a stage of her career, but she can only do justice to certain aspects of it - the gentlest ones, rather surprisingly. When she launches into her first big aria she is uncontrolled in the wrong way, but she phrases the quiet final section exquisitely, and manages most of 'O patria mia' with something like aplomb. …

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