Welsh operatic stars take leading roles (and audience acclaim) in two of English National Opera’s autumn season offerings, Verdi’s Aida and Handel’s Rodelinda.
Lapping up audience cheers at ENO’s home, The London Coliseum, is tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones singing Radamès in Aida. He has to grab the audience within moments of the opening of this the grandest of grand operas singing the show-stopping Celeste Aida and fortunately this was achieved with ease. With American soprano Latonia Moore in the title role, this was a particularly strong, full force performance matched in the confidence of singing by a production as bold as it is brazen.
Gwyn Hughes Jones and Brindley Sherratt
Gwyn Hughes Jones
Gwyn Hughes Jones and Latonia Moore
Gwyn Hughes Jones
Gwyn Hughes Jones
Michelle DeYoung and Latonia Moore
This new production by Phelim McDermott with sets from Tom Pye and costumes by Kevin Pollard, lit by Bruno Poet, is a real wow of a show although purists will say some of that attention grabbing is for some of the wrong reasons. It is no traditional chocolate box Aida, but a highly stylised take on Ancient Egypt with zany costumes, contemporary choreography and an interpretation based on militaristic 20th century regimes (another Fascist state!).
Perhaps the wildest costumes are reserved for the Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris, sung by Michelle DeYoung. The pleated and moulded shell dresses do resembles representations form Ancient Egypt but also give a chrysalis-like feel. The chorus men sport a wild mixture of Pharaonic-Egypt inspired headgear but otherwise modern era attire.
As the Captain of the Guards Radamès, Gwyn Hughes Jones has a flashy military uniform while Musa Ngqungwana as Aida’s father Amonasro seems more of a guerilla leader wearing combats and the marvellous Brindley Sherratt as Ramfis wears a more operatic take on that mystical land. Aida herself is dressed in the least eye-grabbing costume that seems almost most of tribal African.
Keri-Lynn Wilson conducted with gusto when demanded and the appropriate calm and charm for both the intimate emotional expressions and the sensuality of the mesmerising moments of this foray into eastern sensuality and mystique.
The contemporary movement was choreographed by Lina Johansson with dancers/acrobats who cavorted, writhed, waved silks (designed by Basil Twist) whenever required to bring vivid tableaux to life. The costume swapping including soldiers in dress uniform to temple maidens. They have a lot to do as this opera requires a vast amount of spectacle from temples to that triumphant entry. Rather than huge numbers of soldiers, animals etc the triumphal entrance is transformed to a ceremony to honour the war dead so we have a procession of flag draped coffins.
Apart from some odd vowel sounds from Michelle DeYoung this was a vocally delightful cast, yes, with those big hitting numbers but more importantly another gentleness and sensitivity to tell what is fundamentally a domestic tragedy, a love trio that ends if disaster for all. Our Aida has the richness and warmth to make her convincing and alluring while De Young brought a haughtiness that transforms into despair as she realises the consequences of her actions with the closing scenes the most accomplished, while Gwyn Hughes Jones showing a pleasing dramatic flair to match the intensity and then pathos of his singing. He looks and sounds a suitably heroic tenor. There is also great fun with the High Priestess sung gloriously by Eleanor Dennis and her acolytes with the flowing red silks in a sensual and little risqué temple scene.
The opera began with a narrow pyramid shape slowly opening and this was perfectly complimented at the conclusion. The closing moments as Radamès and Aida embrace their death Amneris is in her own slowly closing “tomb”, both suffocating spaces created through the closing of that aperture that had heralded the start of the drama.
Soprano Rebecca Evans is also enjoying success, returning to the title role of Handel’s Rodelinda for a performance that demands combination and balance of the most superb singing and dramatic ability. She shares the stage with Newport’s Neal Davies throwing himself with wild abandon into the portrayal of the opera’s arch-villain Garibaldo. Meanwhile, tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones is wowing audiences in a new production of Aida.
Rebecca Evans returns to Rodelinda to give another display of vocal strength matched by strong stage presence and fiestiness in a powerhouse role that demands range and control of exquisite Handel arias. But this being an in yer face Richard Jones production inspired by the golden age of Italian cinema and updated to Fascist Italy rather than some sort of Baroque Italianate setting our soprano has to totally throw herself into the acting which ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, the emotional to the near hysterical. This is opera after all.
The story is pretty crazy as our heroine believes her husband, the rightful king Bertarido, has been overthrown and killed. The usurper Grimoaldo is madly in love with her and is encouraged by his henchman Garibaldo to seduce Rodelinda. Garibaldo meanwhile has his own emotional machinations with the rightful king’s sister Eduige, sung vividly by Susan Bickley. Rodelinda is not only loyal, faithful and super feisty but also a smart cookie and she is more than a match for the wicked men to save herself and son Flavio. It transpires that Bertarido is not dead and has returned in disguise and supported by Unulfo is finally united with wife and son.
Evans’ lyrical soprano has a darker tone, a less sparkling lightness, than when she first sang the role in 2014 and this adds a new lustre to her performance. This time round she is paired with a bright and intelligent counter tenor of Tim Mead as Bertarido while the rather pathetically painted tyrant Grimoaldo is beautifully sung by Spanish tenor Juan Sancho. Jones makes Unulfo, the rightful king’s constant ally, particularly long-suffering and is charmingly sung by Christopher Lowrey. Similarly, the director gives the non-singing role of Flavio an at first witty but fiery, increasingly manic and twisted interpretation realised by Matt Casey. Neal Davies, winner of the Lieder Prize in the 1991 Cardiff Singer of the World competition (two years after Bryn Terfel and the last Welsh person to win), is clearly in his element as the cunning and unscrupulous Garibaldo without sinking into becoming a panto baddy.
As you would expect from Richard Jones the production is a wild evening of theatrical hijinks, as his characters weave their complicated narrative through designer Jeremy Herbert’s grim fascist lair. The opened up building, like a giant dolls house, is divided into rooms, so we can see the action move from office, palace, to prison cell and torture chamber. Our only ventures outside are to meet Bertarido in a neon lit bar and visiting his own premature tomb. The story is pretty far-fetched but Jones adds to this with the humour sliding deeper into a dark, black slapstick and gives an uneasy portrayal of violence and clemency, revenge and forgiveness but with the closing seconds definitely on the side of blood lust.
The beauty of Handel’s score is lovingly handled by conductor and baroque specialist Christian Corny.
There are further performances of Rodelinda November 1, 3, 9, 11, 15 and Aida October 31, November 4, 10, 17, 27. You can combine both into two consecutive evenings at ENO.