Modern Warfare: Aida at the Kongelige Teater

Verdi – Aida

Aida – Miriam Clark
Il Re – Willard White
Amneris – Raehann Bryce-Davis
Radamès – Samuele Simoncini
Amonasro – Musa Ngqungwana
Ramfis – Kim Byunggil
Un Messaggero – Michael Kristensen
Sacerdotessa – Gisela Stille

Det Kongelige Operakor, Det Kongelige Kapel / Paolo Carignani.
Stage director – Annabel Arden.

Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen, Denmark.  Saturday, March 11th, 2023.

It was a pleasure to be back at the beautiful Copenhagen Opera House for the first time since March 2019, this time for a new production of Aida by Annabel Arden.  Tonight, I had the pleasure of sitting higher up than I have previously at the house and the warmth of the sound was noticeable – as indeed was the balance between stage and pit.  This is a building that sounds as magnificent as it looks.

Photo: © Camilla Winther

Arden sets the action in what appears to be a militaristic society of the present day.  She makes use of video (Will Duke), to magnify the movement of the principals and chorus on stage onto the back panel of the stage.  This is combined with images of a desert, with what looks like a bomb crater, and some rather gaudy costumes.  The visual climax of the Triumphal Scene must surely have been the glitter cannons that ejaculated over the assembled forces.  Despite the technology, there’s a sense of making much of little with Arden’s staging.  The sets are basic – other than the backdrop, there’s a bed for Amneris at the opening that’s also repurposed as the tomb, while the King addresses the people from what appears to be a similarly repurposed ping-pong table.  In order to give the impression of a cast of thousands, Arden has the chorus and principals perambulate in circles around the stage in the Triumphal Scene, while the synchronized dancing for the chorus suggests a society that celebrates in violence and war.

Photo: © Camilla Winther

Indeed, I felt consistently throughout the evening that Arden had quite a few ideas but wasn’t always able to turn these into a cogent narrative.  Rather, her staging felt like a sequence of random ideas that sounded good in isolation but weren’t necessarily connected in practice.  The bodies hoisted down from the flies while the chorus danced underneath made for an interesting stage picture, but it felt randomly exposed and then unexplored.  Aida was accompanied for much of the evening by a quartet of danseuses who gyrated randomly along with her ‘Numi pietà’.  Perhaps Arden was attempting to say that Aida was simply one of many – or that she had multiple personality disorder, it’s hard to confirm.  Certainly, the way the danseuses ran between the chorus members at the start of the triumphal scene was striking.  Interestingly the dance of the priestesses was cut, despite there being the personnel available for it, and the danseuses reappeared covered in tight gold jumpsuits to act as cheerleaders at the end of the triumphal scene.  Direction of the principals consisted of a considerable amount of standing and delivering, with arms outstretched into the middle distance.  One cannot deny that Arden had many ideas, but I do wish these had been combined into a more coherent and thought-through narrative and with more imaginative direction of the principals.

Photo: © Camilla Winther

Musically, there was much to appreciate and indeed to enjoy.  One of the consistent pleasures of visiting this house is the excellence of the orchestra.  They took a little while to find their form tonight – the gossamer-light violins in the prelude were not quite unanimous in approach at first, and there’s absolutely nowhere to hide in this splendid acoustic.  Paolo Carignani led a wonderfully fleet reading, there was no idling here, but also one that was built on an impeccable sense of line.  His tempi were ideally swift, but there was a genuine sense of implicit beauty in how he phrased the work, from beginning to end.  Once past the prelude, the orchestra responded with playing of superb quality – the expressiveness of the harps, the eloquence of the solo clarinet, or the way that the strings dug deep to pull out fragments of melody.  The brass was on excellent form.  The house chorus, prepared by Steven Moore, sang with superb tuning, the tenors and basses in particular, while the sopranos and mezzos sang with generous vibrations.

Photo: © Camilla Winther

Samuele Simoncini sang his ‘celeste Aida’ while Amneris slept on a nearby bed.  I’m quite surprised that he didn’t wake her up because he must have been heard in Cairo.  It was definitely loud.  No diminuendo on the high B-flat here, he went for it quickly, but gave us the bonus of repeating the words ‘vicino al sol’ after it an octave down to give us full value.  His is a tenor of sunny warmth in the middle and his diction throughout, and ability to draw meaning from the text, were a model to his colleagues.  That said, the voice does require a bit of heavy lifting to get up to the top but his vocalism was always generous.  His Radamès was never less than reliable.

Photo: © Camilla Winther

Miriam Clark sang Aida in a focused, if narrow, soprano with admirable evenness of emission.  Clark has clearly worked hard on the style, making use of a rich and resonant bottom register, and phrased her music with delicacy.  Her ‘o patria mia’ was sung with a genuine legato, she soared up to the C in full voice and came off it very quickly.  It did sound to my ears that there was a tension to the tone, that the support wasn’t quite lined up initially, but that could have been due to the relative narrowness of the instrument.  Musa Ngqungwana sang Amonasro with a regal line.  His isn’t perhaps the most refulgent instrument, but he really understands how this music should go, paying full attention to those particularly Italianate double consonants, and he has an impeccable legato.  There was never any sense of Ngqungwana sacrificing beauty of tone, no barking or hectoring, just an admirable line that made his Amonasro very much a king.

Photo: © Camilla Winther

The passage of the years is definitely not apparent in Willard White’s bass-baritone – he sounds the same as he always has – using the vowels to colour the tone and singing with warmth and generosity.  Kim Byunggil sang Ramfis in a resonant and focused bass, not perhaps as expansive as others who have previously sung the role, but he’s still young in a voice type that blooms later.  Gisella Stille sang the Sacerdotessa with hieratic and extrovert authority.

Photo: © Camilla Winther

I’ve kept Raehann Bryce-Davis Amneris until last.  This lady is, without doubt, a star.  She has stage presence to spare, holding our attention from the very start.  Her mezzo has an attractive fast vibrato and she has a magnificently full chest register that she can descend to, one so big and rich it had me questioning my sexual orientation.  I’m sure with time and more familiarity with the role that Bryce-Davis will make even more of the text, using it as the starting point for her eloquent line, finding ever more meaning.  Yet she completely and implicitly understands how this music should go.  She rose to a thrilling judgment scene, growing in authority with every interjection, and she capped it with an electrifying high A that she seemed to hold on to forever – and it justifiably drove the audience wild.  An artist with a massive amount of promise, whose career I look forward to continuing to follow – and will someone please give her a Carmen!

Photo: © Camilla Winther

There was definitely much to enjoy in this evening’s Aida – Carignani’s conducting, the enthusiastic singing, and the excellence of the house forces.  Arden’s staging made much with little, had been fluently rehearsed, but also seemed to be over-reliant on stock operatic gestures and was a sequence of ideas that seemed sporadically imposed rather than cogently argued.  Despite the reservations, it was very much worth the journey and the capacity audience responded throughout with generosity, rewarding Clark and Bryce-Davis with particularly generous ovations at the close.

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