Third time unlucky? After a scorching start to the summer, with superb productions of Il trittico and Flight, Opera Holland Park’s season came unstuck with a horror of a show in Daniel Slater’s Aida. A museum setting, with a handsome bust of Isis flanked by a pair of Anubis statues, held promise. Summoning the spirits of the characters to life – a Belphégor: Le fantôme du Louvre style staging – could work. Aida as Egyptologist fantasy? Instead, Slater turned Verdi’s opera into a daft class conflict, pitting rich partygoers against museum staff.

Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (Aida) © Robert Workman
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (Aida)
© Robert Workman

Amneris, a wealthy society hostess, has seemingly hired the museum for a lavish party. Casting Aida as a cleaner, armed with mop and bucket, immediately presents a problem. How is she captive, unless as an economic slave forced to take a poorly paid job? Amneris’ hold over her is never clear, but nowhere near as murky as Radamès rank within the partygoers. He is chosen to lead ‘the Egyptians’ into battle, up against Ramfis as his rival for the top job. When Radamès returns, during a cocaine-snorting orgy of a fancy dress triumphal scene, his ‘Ethiopian’ hostages are the other museum staff – security guards, cleaners and Amonasro as a shuffling, bespectacled pensioner. By the time the interval is over, the bust of Isis has taken a tumble, making one wonder if Amneris had taken out any ‘accidental damage’ insurance.

The Priestess clambers onto the back of Anubis to deliver her invocation to Ptah. A threatening testosterone-fuelled atmosphere fills the air in the Temple of Vulcan, where Radamès is raised aloft like a footballing god, dressed in ceremonial garb prised from a glass case. But the Egyptian excuse for heading off to war is never made clear or credible. Ironically, it was such a handsome set that "playing it straight" may well have worked better than a high society dressing-up fantasy. Slater, usually such a reliable director, was uncharacteristically slack. One chorus member, for example, puffs and pants to lift a ‘stone’ urn, but the other two are lifted with such ease, it’s obvious they’re plastic. Aida, in the Nile Scene, exclaims “Ciel! mio padre!” before she’s even clapped eyes on her father. Slater didn’t appear on stage to take a curtain call.

Heather Shipp (Amneris) and Peter Auty (Radamès) © Robert Workman
Heather Shipp (Amneris) and Peter Auty (Radamès)
© Robert Workman

 It was also a disappointing evening musically. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers sounded distinctly underpowered as Aida, compared with previous OHP outings, though shaped her lines tenderly in “Ritorna vincitor!” and acted the put-upon cleaning lady deftly. Verdi’s big, expansive phrases were often beyond her, though, and she nearly came to grief at the end of “O patria mia”. Peter Auty sang a creditable “Celeste Aida” and was dramatically plausible as the young man who seems to be the butt of an elaborate joke. Heather Shipp stood out as a haughty super-bitch of an Amneris, with a scornful chest register to match. She and Auty shone in their fiery Act IV confrontation. Other singers were stretched by the demands of Verdi’s vocal writing, although Keel Watson’s cigar-toting King was carried off with swagger.

Graeme Broadbent (Ramfis) and Peter Auty (Radamès) © Robert Workman
Graeme Broadbent (Ramfis) and Peter Auty (Radamès)
© Robert Workman

Manlio Benzi threw himself enthusiastically upon Verdi’s score, often resulting in erratic tempi and poor brass co-ordination, although the elongated pit cannot have helped. The Chorus sang lustily, but the grand public scenes were scuppered by the silly direction. Only in the more intimate moments could we glimpse the true spirit of Verdi’s masterpiece. A huge disappointment.