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Aida Loses Elephants, Real Stoppard, Alpine Love: London Stage

Micaela Carosi and Marianne Cornetti
Micaela Carosi, left, and Marianne Cornetti in the David McVicar production of the Verdi opera "Aida" at the Royal Opera House in London. The spare and abstract production is conduced by Nicola Luisotti. Photographer Bill Cooper/Royal Opera via Bloomberg

May 5 (Bloomberg) -- You don’t need elephants and pyramids for a successful production of Verdi’s “Aida.” You do need a Triumphal March with all the trimmings, and a claustrophobic atmosphere of love thwarted by authority.

David McVicar’s spare, abstract production at the Royal Opera House doesn’t go down the elephant route, and yet it doesn’t serve up quite enough gee-whizz spectacle or doomed passion either. It’s an in-between staging, good in parts, poor in others.

He sets the story on a bare gray-brown stage that is occasionally enlivened by the appearance of a rusty metal frame (sets by Jean-Marc Puissant). The characters are directed to use slow stylized gestures, which neatly suggest a world of ossified ritual and decay. When the frame is lifted off the stage, it leaves an empty space that cries out to be filled with a massive Triumphal March.

Filled it is. There are slaves, priests and courtiers as far as the eye can see, and the sound they make is something phenomenal. The problem is that once they’re in place they just park and bark, with predictably static results. Isn’t it meant to be a march?

What movement there is, is supplied by Fin Walker’s self-contained ballet sequences which use angular, jerky gestures and bare-breasted slave girls to create an atmosphere of brutal eroticism. It’s a tad repetitious, and the style doesn’t change much whether the setting is meant to be a temple or a boudoir. Still, at least there’s movement.

Power Reserves

Vocally, things are good. Micaela Carosi has a pure, almost severe, sound with huge reserves of power. She makes an Aida you can heartily admire, if not love. Marcelo Alvarez sings his first Radames with a beautiful silvery tone, and if his “Celeste Aida” is phrased choppily (and he elects to go down the octave to a lower B flat at the end), he makes up for it with a passionate performance in the rest of the piece.

Loud-voiced Marianne Cornetti (Amneris) is hampered by a hideous costume (designed by Moritz Junge) that makes her look like a large superannuated alien. When it comes to the penultimate scene in which she offers to save Radames’s life if he’ll marry her, it takes the tension out of his choice. It wouldn’t be surprising if he threw up out of sheer horror.

There are no horrors in the pit. Nicola Luisotti conducts with the kind of fire and focus that is lacking in the production, and the chorus sounds terrific.

Rating: ** ½.

Shifting Stoppard

“Aida” is a heart-on-sleeve work in which an emotion is no sooner felt than expressed. What a different world from Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play “The Real Thing,” now at the Old Vic, that shifts from appearance to reality and back again.

Married playwright Henry (Toby Stephens) is having an affair with Annie (Hattie Morahan), an actress who wants to stage a ghastly play written by a young convict. This is the framework Stoppard uses to be able to switch between acted emotion in quote marks, and real emotion outside of them.

It’s a breezy piece with sharp, clever gags and powerful insights into love affairs among the intellectual classes.

Sometimes the writing falls into secular preachiness. There are long speeches about self-knowledge, free love, art and writing, and Morahan doesn’t always avoid the trap of sounding like a mouthpiece rather than a character. Stephens balances the different parts beautifully though, and Anna Mackmin’s simple production feels cool and clever.

Rating: ***.

Young Lovers

There’s more of a self-referential focus in Hans Werner Henze’s 1961 opera “Elegy for Young Lovers,” staged by English National Opera at the Young Vic Theatre.

It tells the story of Gregor Mittenhofer, a monstrously egotistical poet who allows a young couple to die on the Alps so that he has fodder for his next poem.

This is a patchy piece. After a slow and inconsequential first act, the drama and music only begin to take off when Mittenhofer starts to manipulate the young lovers in Act 2. They then spend a long time dying in Act 3.

Tom Pye uses just a few carefully chosen props to create a 1930s Alpine guest house. He adds a remarkable melting ice-clock into the set, which dramatically shatters at one point.

Fiona Shaw directs with admirable clarity. The singing and acting are fine, especially Steven Page as Mittenhofer and Kate Valentine as the doomed Elizabeth. Stefan Blunier conducts the spiky score with precision. It’s a good production of a glacial work.

Rating: **.

“Aida” is in repertory at the Royal Opera through May 16. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

“The Real Thing” is at the Old Vic until June 5. Information: http://www.oldvictheatre.com or +44-844-871-7628.

“Elegy for Young Lovers” is at the Young Vic through May 8. Information: http://www.youngvic.org or +44-20-7922-2922.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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