Ellen Kent's traditionalist production of Verdi's masterpiece fails to set the pulses racing

Ellen Kent is a maverick. In the arts, that normally implies edginess, pushing the envelope, a predilection for avant-garderie. In the topsy-turvy world of opera, however, Kent is an oddity for precisely the opposite reasons.

Where conceptual wackiness, a modish disregard for the composer’s stated intentions, and updated costuming have long been de rigueur in fashionable directorial circles, Kent has obdurately continued doing opera the old-fashioned way, setting the action in the period specified by the composer, and eschewing oddball re-interpretations.

It’s a formula that has certainly worked at the box office. For two decades now, Kent’s shows have successfully toured the UK and Ireland, and her new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s slave drama Aida hits Belfast in the middle of a three-month tour of 20 different cities.

It makes a mixed impression. There are, of course, lavishly painted backdrops, long a hallmark of Ellen Kent productions, in this case inspired by the Valley of the Kings (the opera is set in pre-Christian Ancient Egypt). These are evocatively lit and painted, and cleverly layered to suggest a succession of different locations.

The problem, however, is what Kent does with the singers placed within them. Or, rather, what she doesn’t do – for this is very much opera in ‘stand and deliver’ mode, arias sung through with a minimum of movement or gesture, chorus members rooted to the spot in a state of apparent torpor. It looks pretty enough, but is stultifyingly undramatic as a piece of live music theatre.

There is, admittedly, drama aplenty in Verdi’s music, but here too there are difficulties, the economics of touring presumably dictating that the orchestra is cut to about a third of the size necessary to project effectively into an auditorium the size of the Waterfront Hall. There are, for example, just 11 strings in total, and they inevitably seem scrawny and undernourished in scenes where heft and tonal plenitude are necessary.

Fortunately the central parts are decently delivered vocally. Korean soprano Elena Dee is an impressive Aida, with creamy voice production and enough power in reserve to ride the major climaxes. Her Egyptian lover Radamès is played in hairy-thighed, sword-and-sandals mode by Romanian tenor Sorin Lupu. Vocally he’s less consistent than Dee, losing focus and concentration a little in transitional passages.

But Lupu is a solid Verdi stylist, and shapes key moments with a satisfying command of the idiom. ‘Celeste Aida’ is cleanly sung, and rightly avoids playing to the gallery; his contribution to the closing duet with Aida contains poised, reflective singing of considerable poetry.

Moldovan mezzo-soprano Zarui Vardanean also makes a considerable impression as the jealous Egyptian princess Amneris, and there is sterling support from another Moldovan, baritone Petru Racovita, in the role of Aida’s father Amonasro, the captive King of Ethiopa. Racovita injects more raw emotion into his singing than most of the other soloists. He can clearly act too, though both he and Vardanean look dramatically hamstrung by what is generally a turgid staging.

The chorus copes valiantly with the fact that it is again about a third of the size it needs to be. This specially handicaps big set-piece numbers like the Act Two ‘Triumphal Scene’, when Radamès returns victorious from battle with the Ethiopians. It should be a viscerally exciting episode, but is chronically underpowered in this performance.

The ‘amazing fire effects’ advertised are limited to a row of ten blowtorches ranged at the front of the platform, and a female fire-spinner. The torches whoosh briefly like misbehaving Bunsen burners in the Triumphal Scene, then immediately go out again – it’s hard to see the point of them really. The fire-spinner is better.

Visually the closing stages of the production provide its finest moments, imaginative lighting effects signalling first the unexpected presence of Aida in the tomb with Radamès, then of the weeping Amneris in the Temple of Vulcan above them.

More flexibility from conductor Nicolae Dohotaru would have been welcome here – the scene has some of Verdi’s most beautiful music, and it needs more elbow-room to weave its incantatory magic. Overall, despite some positive features, this is not a performance of Aida to set the pulses racing. It doesn’t wilfully violate the work in any way, and is honest in its intentions.

But too many of the work’s key features have been economy-audited out of existence, for budgetary reasons. It’s Aida-lite, ultimately, and that won’t do for one of Verdi’s greatest, most emotionally involving operatic masterpieces.

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