It was only last year that the stage director Phelim McDermott gave ENO his take on Ancient Egypt in a glamorous production of Akhnaten that did what stagings of Philip Glass need to do: camouflaging the vacuity of the score with dazzling visual effects. Now, for the opening of ENO’s 2017 season, he’s back with more Egyptian fantasy for a brand new Aida – although this time it involves more bling than glamour, with hideous costume designs that turn Pharaoh’s court into a Hollywood fancy dress party.
Like all McDermott shows, there’s an emphasis on physical spectacle, filling the stage with acrobats and swirling silks; and to be fair, it does pull off the odd coup. But more generally it falls into the standard Aida trap of assuming that if you have enough extras marching up and down with spears, you’ve done the job. You haven’t. The result here was a bore, with not enough of musical distinction to relieve it. Keri-Lynn Wilson conducted ably, and Latonia Moore – an experienced Aida on the American circuit – sang the title role with animation, if no consonants. But Gwyn Hughes Jones made a stiff, old-fashioned Radames, delivering the notes but in a lifeless way. Michelle DeYoung’s Amneris was hootily horrible, with distorted vowels. And none of the supporting voices were remarkable.
Thanks to its reduced output, this was the first new opera production ENO had offered since the spring, and it wasn’t worth waiting for. But something that was, on far humbler terms than those of a national company but not to be dismissed, was the premiere of The Life to Come (touring): a piece written some years ago by the odd combination of a student composer, Louis Mander, and a celebrity librettist, Stephen Fry.
Adapted from one of EM Forster’s under-the-counter short stories, about a stifled love-affair between an English missionary and the African chief he’s sent to convert, this piece has been looking for a production for a long while; and it’s finally been taken on by the semi-pro Surrey Opera, who have been touring it around the UK, in a modest staging that still manages to be impressive.
Jonathan Butcher conducts with steely strength. The African chief is sung with elegance and grace by Themba Mvula, a young British baritone I’d call a real find. And the music – somewhere between Britten, Walton and the West End – needs a bit of tidying up technically but comes with memorable melodic ideas and a touching beauty that deserves proper appraisal. There’s another, totally pro staging scheduled at the Oslo Opera (of all places) later this month. Don’t suppose I’ll get there, but I’m tempted.
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