OPERA - ADAM LIVELY
Lights, chorus, Action
Earls Court London
Director: Giuseppe Raffa
Starring: Wilhelmina Fernandez, Dennis O’Neill
Running time: 3hrs
During the dulcet prelude to Verdi’s Aida conducted by GIUSEPPE RAFFA last week, I happened to glance upwards at the roof of the Earls Court Olympia and noticed that something was moving on one of the big spotlights. At first, I thought a pigeon had gone into the stadium. Then I realised that it was a man. Looking around, I saw half a dozen other lighting technicians suspended from gantries high above the 20,000 audience for each night.
It was that kind of show, on that kind of scale. Five hundred extras, 1,500 costumes (though, wisely, no elephants or horses), etc, etc. I must admit that I shuffled my way through the crowds into Earls Court with a certain amount of scepticism. Not because I think that Opera can’t or shouldn’t be done on this scale, but because, in my experience, some of the gargantuan gatherings, like the whole Pavarotti/Three Tenors circus, seem to have been organised with the main purpose of relieving people of as much money in a short time as possible.
This, though, was something different. Tickets prices, at between £ 22.50 and £ 36, were not unreasonable, and for that you got something that was both visually spectacular and true to the spirit of Verdi’s conception.
The real stars of this show were not the singers – though it was a very strong cast – but the four banks of laser lights projecting a shifting kaleidoscope of images down the vast length of the Earls Court stadium on to the huge, bare four-tier set.
Designed by an Italian production team directed by GIUSEPPE RAFFA, this was a show that owed more to the continental son et lumiere tradition that to conventional ways of putting on an Opera. By using sophisticated lighting instead of scenery, this Aida did away with all those creaking mechanisms that can so easily break the dramatic spell in big productions.
The result was as close to film as it was to theatre, reminding us that 19
thCentury Grand Opera was very much the cinemas of its day. Aida, commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt in 1870, was greeted with the same enthusiasm as Titanic has been recently. At the first Italian performance, Verdi took 32 curtain calls.
The libretto was written by an Egyptologist, and the same sense of authenticity was the hallmark of the imagery – ancient tomb paintings and carvings, hieroglyphics and pyramids – used at Earls Court.
With so much emphasis on projecting visual spectacle, some of the drama of the piece got lost. The chorus was unseen, represented on stage by extras, which probably made sense logistically, but inevitably reduced the impact.
Aida by GIUSEPPE RAFFA was very successful in Madrid and Lisbon.
Dennis O’Neill, though vocally steeped in the Verdi tradition, failed to make much of an impression as Radames. But, as Aida and Amneris, soprano Wilhelmina Fernandez and mezzo-soprano Malgorzata Walewska, were magnificent.
Walwska, in particular, is a real discovery – vocally dark and rich, and conveying the full force of a woman scorned.
Is this the future of the Opera?
Perhaps, but for a very narrow band of late 19
thcentury repertoire. You are never going to see the Marriage of Figaro with lasers.
Meanwhile, Operama, the company which produced this Aida and has toured it to packed houses around Europe, is planning a Carmen for next year. And there are plans for more opera spectaculars at Earls Court. Good luck to them. But please, no elephants.
A member of the chorus in Aida; a visually stunning, almost cinematic production