A note in the programme honestly records the trepidation Opéra de Baugé felt in taking on Verdi’s Aida, a tougher prospect than the other operas with which it’s in rep, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. Then again, from an audience’s point of view it’s an opera that has everything – unrequited love, betrayal, revenge, spectacle and enough self-consciously “exotic” music invoking the mystical east to make Edward Said chew his own foot off. On which note, it was a shame both to see a white singer being asked to “black up”, and that the black singers (even those in the chorus) didn’t appear in either of the other productions, only in the specifically “black roles” as Ethiopians in Aida. Not that this is unique to Baugé, or even unusual – this is an area where straight theatre is streets ahead of opera, and it is to be hoped that opera makes an effort to catch up soon.

Radames © Opéra de Baugé
Radames
© Opéra de Baugé

Pity poor Egyptian soldier Radamès, scarcely onstage before he runs into his most implacable enemy – not jealous Amneris nor the vengeful priesthood but “Celeste Aida”, an aria that strikes fear into the heart of the boldest tenor, coming as it does when he’s hardly had a chance to take his coat off. In the event, Shaun Dixon proved to have an excellent spinto tenor voice, tackling the aria with clarity, precision and freshness, and for once without strain. However, here and elsewhere Dixon seems not to be a natural actor, and would benefit from more direction than he gets. The same is true of Jonathan Story’s high priest Ramfis – a powerful voice no doubt, but his body language and expression, almost regardless of what he’s singing, are that of a man standing in a bus queue hoping the rain stays off.

Enter Amneris, the vocally and dramatically excellent Magdalen Ashman. She suspects that she’s seen a loving look pass between her lover Radamès and her slave Aida, and sure enough when Aida enters, the two of them exchange a look lasting at least ten seconds – to stand any chance of missing it, Amneris would have to be in the wrong theatre. Nevertheless, just to make absolutely sure, she tests Aida’s reaction to the false news that Radamès has been killed in battle. Now she knows she has a rival, and Aida’s life gets ever more complicated – with the man she loves fighting for the nation that enslaved her against her father and brothers in the Ethiopian army, how can this possibly end well for her?

Matters get worse when Radamès, now revealed to have survived the battle, enters with her father Amonasro, the excellent Simon Thorpe, as prisoner. The production had Aida run all the way across the stage to embrace Amonasro, which given her status looks utterly wrong – surely an initial involuntary reaction on seeing him, quickly smothered when she realises the danger she might put him in, would be more plausible. By this stage, however, plausibility had left the building, as the grand march music was accompanied by a small number of non-singing extras taking turns to give us Bronze Age Weapons 101. Whether they were meant to be the weapons used by the victorious Egyptians or those taken from the defeated Ethiopians wasn’t clear, but this whole section provoked laughter or blank astonishment from the audience, and really shouldn’t have made it into the show. Likewise some dramatic reason needs to be found for all the principals to come to front of the stage for the end of the act, not just “it sounds better that way”.

Aida was sung by Aivale Cole, whose naturally strong voice is backed up by a sound technique, and she is a strong actor. She was at her best in the duets with Radamès and Amonasro, but the aria “O patria mia”, whilst beautifully sung, came across a little flat and expressionless, as if it were no more than a vocal exercise. A nice touch, though, to have her swish her hand in the orchestra pit as if it were a river, as was the way furled up curtains were used to represent trees in this scene (at least until someone walked into one of them and batted it out of the way...). Unfortunately, Radamès spent the second half in a frankly ridiculous costume which made it hard to take him seriously – I know it’s meant to be a surprise that he’s chosen to lead the Egyptians into battle, but there are limits. The costumes of the priests, likewise, looked like something rejected by the producers of Blake’s Seven as too absurd.

The final scene has the entombed Radamès discovering Aida behind a pillar, as if she’d been intending to jump out and surprise him (who says death by slow asphyxiation can’t be fun?). Their duet (really a trio, given Amneris’ contribution) was beautifully sung. All in all, I’d say Opéra de Baugé under Philip Hesketh have risen to the musical challenges of Aida – the orchestra sounded splendid, and special mention must also go to Carleen Ebbs, who had already distinguished herself in Fledermaus, for her invocation of the god Ptah – but struggled with the dramatic ones.