Opera North, based in Leeds, has occasionally visited Scotland with full productions of its operas at the Festival Theatre, and they have usually been well received. However, in recent years, they have been semi-staging operas in concert halls and their latest—Verdi’s Aida—opened to very good reviews when it premiered in Leeds.
There is a big debate about concert performances of operas versus fully-staged productions. Some suggest that you don’t get the full drama of the work in concert form. However, a well sung concert performance is always going to be superior to a badly produced fully-staged work. Fortunately, tonight we are blessed by a superbly sung Aida with six excellent singers, a very good orchestra under the baton of a fine conductor, and the wonderful Opera North Chorus. This certainly ranks among the finest Aida productions.
Sadly, the Usher Hall isn’t full for this fine performance. We are greeted by a rather dark stage with the orchestra on stage (there is no pit at the Usher Hall), the sixty-strong chorus behind them, and a narrow stage in front with a few props to symbolise Egypt. The singers are dressed in modern dress—combat fatigues for soldiers and modern dress for everyone else—and a back projection of scenes from Middle East wars is used, which really gives the opera an anti-war feel rather than its traditional triumphalism. Director Annabel Arden and designer Joanna Parker manage to create real drama in a small space with few props, although they are aided by great singers and fine acting.
On hearing the wonderful opening chords of Aida we know we were going to get an orchestral treat from the Opera North Orchestra under the baton of Sir Richard Armstrong, the latter well known in Scotland as the Music Director of Scottish Opera from 1993 to 2005. Tonight, he is totally in charge of Verdi’s great music. They are superbly backed by the Opera North Chorus, under the direction of Oliver Rundell, who manage to convey the drama of the marching triumphal army even while seated in the choir stalls of the Usher Hall.
From the opening notes of Ramfis, the High Priest of Egypt, we know we are also in for some vocal treats. Finland has produced many fine bass singers over the years and Petri Lindroos ranks highly among them. His voice is powerful and threatening, and makes one realise why he is in demand in opera houses all over the world.
Radames is sung by Mexican tenor Rafel Rojas, who came to fame when he won the Domingo Prize in 1995. He has a powerful voice as he shows in his Celeste Aida, but he can be subtle too, as in his final dying aria. His Aida is beautifully sung and acted by Italian/Colombian soprano Alexandra Zabala, who Scottish audiences might remember from a recent Festival Macbeth.
His other love interest, Amneris, the daughter of the King of Egypt, is given a very sultry performance by Italian mezzo soprano Alessandra Volpe, who acts and sings beautifully. Her father, the Ethiopian King Amonasra, is very sympathetically sung by American baritone Eric Greene, and the King of Egypt well sung by by Michael Druiett.
This great combination of orchestra, chorus and singers, and the wonderful music of Verdi, makes the three hours of Aida speed by, and it gets a rapturous reception from the audience, who know they have experienced a great night at the opera, even if it is in concert form. Opera North hopes to make their concert performances a regular thing in Scotland in the future.