After the exotic character names “Amneris” and “Amonasro” listed in the program for Verdi’s opera “Aida,” it’s odd to see a character called “Amelia Edwards.”
Is she Aida’s long-lost English twin? Her pet cat?
Either of those ideas would work better than the reality. In Stephen Medcalf’s new staging, funded by impresario Raymond Gubbay at London’s Royal Albert Hall, she’s a prim non-singing Victorian archaeologist.
We first see her poking around dusty Egyptian ruins with her parasol. The overture starts and, as if a dream, ancient priests and slaves appear before her and start singing.
“Celestial Aida, you are the queen of my thoughts,” warbles the love-stricken warrior Radames.
The silent virago (played by Charlotte Medcalf) looks on from a distance, suitably shocked at the hero’s deplorable want of decorum.
Later, Ethiopian prisoners wail “Mercy” while Egyptian priests poke them with sticks and cry “Crush, oh King, this savage rabble.”
The unimpressed spinster, rather in the manner of Lady Bracknell, manages to suggest by the sheer force of her silent frostiness that a good dose of gripe-water and an early bedtime with no supper would be the best way to cure such fractiousness.
Framing devices are problematic at the best of times. This one is so irritating it makes you want to rip out all your teeth and then start work on your neighbor’s.
It tries to convey the idea, I guess, that “Aida” is a product of Victorian Orientalist ideologies: The director wants us to see the tale through a 19th-century lens.
Of a triple-cast show, I saw Indra Thomas (Aida) and Marc Heller (Radames). Both are stodgy actors capable of turning an attractive phrase, even if their voices have some weak spots.
For inexplicable reasons, director Medcalf has Aida strangled by the High Priest, though she does revive for the last duet with Radames.
“I made my way here by stealth,” she sings to him. “I wished to die in your arms.”
So is that why she got herself strangled then? How clever of her.
Tiziano Carraro (Amneris), looking slinky and vampish in a close-fitting white dress, has fire in her belly, and knows how to make a big gesture count for something. She has a good mezzo sound too, even if it lacks an ideal boominess in her chest register.
Designer Isabella Bywater sets all the action among archaeological ruins. Three screens cover the massive Royal Albert Hall pipe organ, and periodically display images of the Nile and ceremonial Egyptian architecture.
Even so, the famous Grand March doesn’t go with as much swing and grandeur as it needs to, despite plenty of dancers and extra actors, and some solid conducting from Andrew Greenwood.
A quick search reveals that Amelia Edwards (1831-1892) was a real-life writer who became a pioneering Egyptologist. It’s a mite sad that her fascinating achievements have been relegated to the sidelines of a muddle-headed “Aida.”
“Aida” is at the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, SW7 2AP, until March 11. Information: http://www.royalalberthall.com or +44-20-7589-8212
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars)Worthless
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)