The pain of love and war are brought front and centre in Opera North’s concert staging of Aida at Leeds Town Hall.
If war is hell, Opera North’s new version of Aida shows how forbidden love can be just as bad and come with equally devastating consequences. This is what we discover in their innovative take on Giuseppe Verdi’s all-time classic. The majestic Leeds Town Hall is the setting for a powerful performance that sees director Annabel Arden, conductor Sir Richard Armstrong and designer Joanna Parker reunited for the first time since 2017’s Turandot.
Their take on Aida takes the form of a concert staging, which is different from your normal opera experience. They have done away with the usual theatre setup so that the enormous Orchestra of Opera North and chorus are performing on stage with the singers. The set is minimal but cleverly used so that every movement in front of you is one that captivates and the music is given equal weight.
Sung in Italian but with remarkably easy-to-follow subtitles at both sides of the stage, they’ve brought Aida into the modern day without a specific setting so that you can interpret it in your own way. That doesn’t take away from the power of the original story though, that leads you through a war-torn world for a heartbreaking tale of love and loyalty as Amneris, the Princess of Egypt and Aida, her Ethiopian slave, battle over the affection of war hero, Radamès, who only has eyes for the latter.
The love-struck women are played by two debuting singers for Opera North, Alessandra Volpe as Amneris and Alexandra Zabala as Aida. They work as the perfect foil for the other – Amneris as the jealous princess and Aida the heartbroken slave who combine perfectly during ‘Fu la sorte dell’armi’. At the centre of their tussle is Radamès, played by Rafael Rojas, a proud conquering hero of the Egyptian armies. His version of Verdi’s masterpiece ‘Celeste Aida’ is a sight and sound to behold, but it is Radamès’ state of internal conflict that leaves him without hope that is most arresting to watch.
Petri Lindroos puts in a star turn as chief priest Ramfis, with his deep bass reverberating with the same power around the historic venue as he wields in his role at the side of the overbearing King of Egypt, played by Michael Druiett. In Aida’s second half, the limelight shines with a gravitational pull on Amonasro, played by American baritone Eric Greene, who is Aida’s father and the King of Ethiopia – he plays on his daughter’s split loyalties in devastating fashion.
As much as the main cast are at the centre of your attention, there’s drama all around them. The chorus at the back of the stage are not there just to back up the singers but are forceful antagonists influencing the events below them. And the orchestra’s presence behind the action forces Verdi’s score to be more than a tool to tell the story but to be part of the consciousness of the whole opera, particularly when the six famous Aida Trumpets come to the front of the stage to welcome Radamès home from battle.
That’s not the only aspect of Opera North’s reimagining of Aida that makes an enthralling experience. The staging is minimal with just stools, a table and a skeleton doorway, but it’s brought to life through its use of innovative video projections on a screen above. It shows crumbling buildings that signify war and hands and lips breaking out of plaster cast to represent both personal and political conflict. And then there’s the use of a camera, which is hidden under a table as a devastated Aida lies on top to project her struggles for all to see.
Opera North’s Aida is a tour de force, but not just in terms of its compelling, heart-breaking story, but also because it shows how a classic opera can still have the same power while feeling utterly contemporary.