No production of Aida will ever improve on the one I saw in 1962 at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. (I was only 21, and with my father – so if my memory has burnished or slighted some of the details, forgive me.) The Triumphal March had not one, but two corps de ballet (some dancers and acrobats, I regret to say, in blackface – but it was a long time ago), and they were preceded by live horses, camels – and I’m positive there was an elephant or two.
Phelim McDermott’s Improbable company has mounted a new production of Verdi’s weirdest opera at the English National Opera, with him directing, and sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Kevin Pollard and lighting by Bruno Poet; “silk effects” – i.e., swirling airborne bits of fabric going every which-way – by Basil Twist; and in place of Caracalla’s ballets, a “Skills Ensemble” of the “female-led acrobatic theatre company Mimbre, choreographed by Movement Director Lina Johansson,” to quote the press handout.
It is not, I fear, Improbable’s finest two hours and 40 minutes – no effects on the scale, or of the grandeur, of those of Satyagraha or Akhnaten. The visual defect is that, despite Pye’s towers and Twist’s windmilling red silk scarves, the production is stubbornly horizontal. The costumes mix sort-of modern dress with fantasy hats, gowns and robes – some of them shaped, less like objects you see in the British Museum’s Egyptian galleries, and more like ornamental details of Gaudí’s cathedral. For the whole first act poor Aida seems to be wearing on her head and shoulders no fewer than two lampshades, one cobalt blue, the other gold lace.
The production is almost redeemed by the music. Keri-Lynn Wilson conducts with real respect for the dynamics, and the Aida, the American soprano, Latonia Moore, who has sung the role more than 100 times, is superb. The one role in Aida that really requires acting is Amneris, who has to go from chilling man-eater to needy princess. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung almost carries it off.
But she has the worst of the problem that afflicts the entire production: the ridiculous translation by Edmund Tracey. It is so far from the Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni that it is the equivalent of Radio 4’s “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’s” challenge to sing the words of one song to the tune of another.
As Radamès Gwyn Hughes Jones has to struggle to sing “Heavenly Goddess” instead of the open vowels of “Celeste Aida” – go ahead, try it yourself. Worse, DeYoung has to distort the vowels in order to sing them at all. She at one point sings “bock”, when the surtitles tell us it’s the hard-to-sing flat-A of “back.”
It’s not unusual to have to complain about ENO’s policy of singing only in English; but this is the first time I can remember a performance almost ruined by a duff translation. What is the point of forcing Latonia Moore to learn a new, unsing-able text? You could almost see the stress on the performers’ faces as they tried to cram in extra syllables, or to do without consonants when they needed them. If the ENO is pleased with Tracey’s translation, why not simply give it to us in the surtitles, while allowing the singers the poetry of the real, Italian libretto? The claim that the audience can better understand Aida sung in this wretched translation is laughable and an insult to their intelligence.
This Aida should be a landmark: the production that finally convinced the ENO to perform works in their original language. Poetry matters, too.