Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

four stars

THERE are fewer of us still able to recall Frank Dunlop’s mid-1980s Edinburgh Festival production of Weber’s Oberon in the Usher Hall, but the venue has more recently hosted memorable concert performances of opera in August, with the 2019 Festival programme’s Gotterdammerung already sold out on the strength of the triumph of 2017’s Walkure.

To these EIF hits we must now add this visit by Opera North with a wonderfully well-cast Aida, performed with the orchestra and conductor Sir Richard Armstrong on the platform, a quality off-the-book chorus in the choir stalls, and the principals working with a door frame, a few steps, a dozen stools and a table in a few feet at the front of the stage. The other crucial ingredient of Annabelle Arden’s production was a flow of images, created by Joanna Parker and Dick Straker, projected on a sail cloth flying above the musicians that made it clear, alongside the costuming, that this was a contemporary take on conflict in the Middle East.

While this worked splendidly to reflect the claustrophobia of the Egyptian court, with their captured Ethiopian slaves, it was predictably less successful for the spectacle of the victory parade, and the best-known of Verdi’s music, even with half a dozen trumpeters joining the soloists at the front. But ultimately that was a small price to pay for the intimate insight gained into the real narrative of the opera.

For all that the men hold the positions of power, the poisonous love-rivalry of Aida and Amneris is the driver of this exploration of the conflict between national loyalty and individual desire. The women are as unscrupulous as each other - at least until Aida’s final sacrifice – while the men are more honourable but less smart.

These performers were beautifully matched vocally too, both Alessandra Volpe (Amneris) and Alexandra Zabala (Aida) company debutantes, although Zabala was in the Teatro Regio Macbeth which visited the Festival Theatre in EIF 2017. Her immaculate dynamic control, singing in music at the very top of her range, was what every ticket-buyer longs to hear from the soprano lead.