Ellen Kent is famed in theatrical circles for bringing opera to the masses, and this goal was evident in her staging of Aida at the New Theatre. It was what you might call 'Opera-lite'.
For those unfamiliar, Aida is the tale of stereotypically star-crossed lovers, this time situated in ancient Egypt. It follows the enmity between Ethiopia and Egypt, wrought in battles led by the heroic Radames who secretly adores the enslaved Ethiopian princess, Aida. Sadly, Pharoah’s daughter Amneris also pledges her unwanted heart to him. Cue much heartrending betrayal and misery, set against the backdrop of exotic Gods and pyramids.
This performance wrung all it could from the story in terms of spectacle and drama, if not in musical excellence. Much effort had clearly been directed at the sets and the costumes were lavish, albeit at times ill-fitting; not often an issue in most performances, but it was unnerving to have one’s attention diverted from the score by Radames’s buttock-skimming skirt whenever he (frequently) raised his arms. Additional wardrobe-malfunctions led to susurrations amongst the audience during a dance performance, although the young, local performer in question continued with grace, poise and an obvious blush.
Indeed, the majority of the background performers, including all of the dancers, were local children from the Stagecoach Theatre Arts Company in Oxford. Whilst this inevitably tempered the polish of the delivery, it added far more in terms of endearment (although it’s difficult not to attribute the obvious failure of the Ethiopian Army to their being made up primarily of infants).
Everything points towards this show offering one thing alone: a fun night out. For those who consider themselves officiandos, perhaps a Welsh National Opera production would be a better bet. However, if you’re looking for some light entertainment or, even better, an introduction to opera, this is absolutely perfect – something corroborated by the eight year old girl sitting next to me in the stalls, who was enthralled right up to the tragic finale.
Not that there weren’t moments of excellence amongst the performers. Sorin Lupu’s Radames was near faultless and his Celeste Aida aria was everything you could hope for. Zarui Vardanean gave a solid performance as Amneris whilst Olga Perrier’s eponymous Aida was at times lovely. Iurie Maimescu was perhaps wasted as the High Priest, with only the occasional appearance. Pharoah himself (Eugen Ganea) seemed a tad wooden, though perhaps this was to express his austerity. It was difficult to suppress giggles however, when, to an initially antithetically light score, he declared, Nigel-Farage-esque, death to the foreigners.
For me the star of the show, alongside the amateur young performers, was the fire spinner. Although on stage for barely three minutes, he was both graceful and dextrous.
Admittedly, it’s a gimmick; but Man with Fire is always going to be a crowd-pleaser.