Phelim McDermott’s new production for ENO features some virtuoso turns and preserves tragedy’s air of mystery, but at times lacks cohesion
English National Opera’s new production of Aida is the work of Phelim McDermott, whose previous stagings for the company include Philip Glass’s operas Satyagraha and Akhnaten, the latter, like Aida, set in ancient Egypt. McDermott’s intention is to preserve the essential air of mystery or otherness that surrounds Verdi’s tragedy while examining its seriousness of purpose and darker implications: the nature of theocracy; the relationship between desire and obsession; and the inevitability of betrayal when war forces its casualties to choose between lovers and family. He does so, however, in ways that don’t always ideally cohere.
His Egypt is a decadent place that half hides its violence behind a veneer of civilised glamour. The columns and monoliths of Tom Pye’s set derive from hieroglyphs from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, but Kevin Pollard’s costumes range backwards and forwards between antiquity and the present day, allowing McDermott to draw continuous parallels between the ancient world and our own. The priests wear greatcoats and totemic animal headdresses. Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Radamès, looking like a Napoleonic general, is subjected to a primitive initiation ritual in the temple of Phta, before leading his troops off to a modern-day conflict. The triumph scene is a solemn procession of flag-draped coffins, observed by a smart-looking crowd in 1930s evening wear. All this leads to an occasionally bewildering first half, and it is not until after the interval that the production begins to settle. The third act has remarkable tautness and intensity, though McDermott weakens the tension of the judgment scene by having Hughes Jones tried in full view of Michelle DeYoung’s Amneris rather than offstage.