What is left of Verdi’s Aida if you remove the pyramids, statues, temples and thrones? A modern take on this distinctively historical opera can look like an oxymoron and put off more conservatively-minded operagoers from attending the show. But don’t make that mistake.

Imelda Drumm (Amneris), Manfred Hemm (Ramfis), Graeme Danby (King) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Radamès)
© Pat Redmond

In presenting the last – and the most ambitious – of Irish National Opera’s productions for their first year, director Michael Barker-Caven cleverly strips the opera bare of its monumental fringes and aims at showing the “ghost in the shell” of Aida. While the intrinsically symbolic value of art should not generally require the director to simplistically decode a work for the audience, it is true that many repertoire operas have become so crystallised in their scenic packaging that the audience risks losing sight of their essence.

Like all the best operas, Aida is, at its core, a boiling cauldron of human emotions and behaviours: ambition, love, jealousy, loyalty and betrayal. But, possibly more than any other opera, Aida exemplifies the attribute of ‘tragic’ in its original meaning, derived from Greek tragedy: making a difficult moral choice that has ruinous consequences. On the one hand, the choice of setting the story in an indefinite 21st-century war zone in the Middle-East makes explicit the historical recurrence of imperialistic cycles; on the other, by the removal of the markedly historical attributes and of most of the classic Egyptian iconography, we are forced to focus on the universal human drama rather than on the decoration.

Aida at Irish National Opera
© Pat Redmond

To this end, Joe Vaněk's stylised set and contemporary costumes, the TV-like video effects of Aaron Kelly and, particularly, the incisive and haunting lighting by Paul Keogan work exceptionally well together, providing a meaningful background for the story but not overshadowing it.

The spotlight is on the love triangle between Aida, Radamès and Amneris. Soprano Orla Boylan was well chosen for the title role. She played convincingly the enslaved princess secretly in love with Radamès; but what really impressed was the sheer power of her voice, always distinctly heard across the orchestra and the full chorus. Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones tackled the vocal challenges and high notes of the role of Radamès effortlessly, starting from “Celeste Aida”. Imelda Drumm was outstanding in the role of Amneris, invariably in control of the singing and leaving a strong mark with her velvety, attractive mezzo-soprano. Her duet with Radamès in the fourth act was a highlight of the evening – Hughes Jones also gave his best here – as was her duet with Aida in Act 2.

Imelda Drumm (Amneris) and Orla Boylan (Aida)
© Pat Redmond

Italian baritone Ivan Inverardi was an authoritative Amonasro; bass Manfred Hemm as Ramfis had a suitably dark voice and pleased in “Nume custode e vindice”; Graeme Danby gave a great characterisation of a frail King of Egypt sitting on a wheelchair.

The chorus plays a central role in Aida, and both male and female components, often heard separately, delivered on the epic effect. The direction of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra by Fergus Sheil was impeccable. The Triumphal March was a very satisfying musical moment, from the blaze of the trumpets to the delicacy of the strings. The only remark here is that the noise of the pom-poms on stage was competing for attention with the lighter sections of the music. Similarly, it would be great if directors could forgo the widespread habit of filling the stage with movement during the overture (or the prelude in this case): that’s the only time in an opera when the focus is solely on the orchestral music and, I presume, even the most restless of audiences can stand a few minutes without any action happening on stage.

Apart from some inconsistencies between text and singers' movements, this production bears the mark of thoughtful handling of the source material. It is a great show, a combination of scale and quality exceptional so far for opera in Ireland.