Irish National Opera and RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, on 24 November 2018

There is a real sense of anticipation as the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre fills with people and the excitement builds. Irish National Opera is not even a year old, and here it is now producing Verdi’s Aida, drawing in well over 100 performers between those on stage and in the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (tonight conducted by artistic director Fergus Sheil). It’s a major investment, but also a tricky prospect: Aida divides critics and audiences alike as a work famous for its spectacle, a factor exploited shamelessly in some productions. This contrasts starkly with the specific and private human story at the opera’s heart, and getting the balance right isn’t easy.

Michael Barker-Caven’s production provocatively situates the action in a parallel version of the present-day Middle East, complete with news cameras and security laptops, their images projected onto any available flat surfaces. The multi-purpose set, part-military compound and part-showpiece corporate structure, makes use of mobile partition walls and stepped stands (for rent-a-crowd moments). Blandly modern, Joe Vanek’s design seems almost unfinished, like the disappointing community it frames, and creates effective spaces for this work of hubris and loss. Freed of all the traditional gold-painted sphinxes and camels, this modern Aida picks up on recent neo-colonial adventures, dropping in reminders like the Abu Ghraib-style hooded prisoners seen in Act II’s grand march. In a story with no winners, analogies with the present-day are stark: cultures meet, miscommunication ensues, we know the rest all too well…

As ever with the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, the acoustic takes a little getting used to for both audience and performers alike, with members of the cast initially straying slightly below the pitch of the orchestra, as if aurally disoriented, but thankfully this is soon sorted. As Radamès, tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones has the unenviable task of singing one of the most well-known Verdi arias—‘Celeste Aida’—within minutes of the curtain rising, and produces a sweet, well-focused tone with good presence on stage. He is partnered by Imelda Drumm (Amneris) and Orla Boylan (Aida), both singing superbly; the tension between these three forms the core of the work and it is excellent to have such a well-balanced trio.

Vocally, the cast as a whole offers much, with no weak links. Bass Graeme Danby is reliably robust as the King, though his confinement to a wheelchair is a gesture that has become almost a cliché of opera stagings elsewhere, slightly blunting its symbolism. Special mention must be made of the High Priestess of Rachel Goode, a lovely soprano voice heard only in one scene, but to very good effect. As well, this production boasts one of the largest choruses assembled for a professional opera in this country, and the impact of this ensemble—playing soldiers, dignitaries, temple worshippers, partygoers, and more—is powerful, its sound punching across the auditorium. Made up of a mix of conservatory students, freelancers, and former members of the Opera Ireland chorus, the ensemble works, though one can only hope for a properly established INO Chorus in the future.

Like a poem, much of this opera is ultimately concerned with creating the conditions for its closing act. At this point the narrative imperative falls away and the situation of the three protagonists—each by now estranged from their surroundings in different ways—lies revealed, like a strange dream. In good productions, and this is one, the beginning of this act makes a strong case for the opera to be titled ‘Amneris’, such is her conflicted state, and Imelda Drumm’s passionate performance is compelling. Nevertheless, this is an opera that asks how society treats the stranger in its midst: this is Aida, the survivor, and her choice to share the fate of her lover Radamès becomes deeply moving here. This understated production brings this opera closer to its audience more than most, and lingers long in the mind. Its immediate impact is powerful too, as the audience loudly acknowledges the curtain call at the end, rising to its feet. Rounding off an ambitious opening year, Irish National Opera’s future looks to be in good hands.

Giuseppe Verdi, Aida
Sung in Italian (libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni), with English surtitles
Produced by Irish National Opera
Director: Michael Barker-Caven; Set & Costume Designer: Joe Vanek; Lighting Designer: Paul Keogan; Choreographer: Liz Roche; Conductor: Fergus Sheil
Cast: Orla Boylan (Aida); Gwyn Hughes Jones (Radamès); Imelda Drumm (Amneris); Ivan Inverardi (Amonasro); Manfred Hemm (Ramfis); Graeme Danby (King of Egypt); Rachel Goode (High Priestess); Conor Breen (Messenger)
RTÉ Concert Orchestra

Photography by Pat Redmond