The Albert Hall is a friendly place. It's just as well, as the circular construction means that there is a natural, low level sense of drama surrounding the central space. Even during the Proms, when the performers are corralled at one end of the building, there is a drifting focus onto the standing area and the hardy folk who have paid for the best 'seats' with cramp. There's no mortal hand-to-hand combat in the Albert Hall these days but that's the echo of the design.
This sense of drama is antiquarian, especially in this building, a Victorian reconstruction of the Coliseum held in such esteem in that latter period. Stephen Medcalf's admirably poised production of Aida for Raymond Gubbay simply places itself amongst the ley lines offered by the space. A permanent set that looks like the ruins of an Egyptian archaeological site abnegates the need for more built-up stage furniture. A small corps of non-singing performers take on the role of a team of archaeological explorers, including a single woman, described in the programme as the novelist and historian Amelia Edwards. This addition follows the fashion familiar from ENO for a pertinent if extraneous character to wander the action as a foil to the fantasy. The whole inter-period dumbshow also acts as punctuation between acts and scenes. A screen covering the organ at the south end of the building expands the intent of actions on the floor and provides backdrop for the scenes as they occur with a series of projections. It's intelligent and discreet. Here's one of a series of videos from the production process:
With pop-up ideas from both the flies and beneath the floor as well as some precise lighting the space remains lively for all its stasis. Into this is poured the spectacle that one expects from not only a production bearing the company's name but also from this opera. A sizeable, well-choreographed chorus has no need of camels and the like in the triumphant march of the second act (and the upshot is that the focus remains on the performers, no parenthetic circus here). The drama, which is half driven by the Egyptian-Ethiopian antagonism is worked into the floor-show; surtitles on LED boards around the hall are available but by no means essential for an uninitiated. The action is sufficient.
One might imagine that this is an ideal situation in which the principal cast might play out the drama. A certain groping of the imagination is indeed necessary as despite the best (i.e. most expedient) efforts at resolving the issue of performing in the round, and additionally in such a large hall, it really is impossible to get in touch with the singing. Using individual mics, the principals not only sound as if they might be coming from any one of a half dozen directions but the selective pickup of the technology, not to mention the necessary level adjustment to which each is subject, leaves voices physically adrift. It's like being asked to asses the effectiveness of a car whilst it's skidding and aqua-planing across a wet road. However, it must be said that the facility to amplify gave real dramatic weight to Radames' (offstage) trial in the vault, along with a typically simple idea for the staging with steam pouring up out of subterranean vents.
Despite this - and the other tricky issue in the round, that of ensemble, largely conquered - there is clearly super singing at hand. The cast I saw on this opening night was Marc Heller as Radames, Tiziana Carraro as Amneris, Stanislav Shvets as a wonderful, copper-bottomed Ramfis and Daniel Lewis Williams as The King. Above all I would have loved to have heard Indra Thomas' Aida au naturel, as the sound gave the impression of being rather special but the technology conspires to separate out the overtones in the voices before they can blend in the auditorium. Strangely though, David Kempster's magnificent, punchy Amonasro needs no further qualification. Catrin Aur's Priestess was as High as described, uncoiling beautifully from the gallery and offering the chance to hear the excellent women of the chorus at closer quarters. Andrew Greenwood's conducting was of a part with the staging of the drama, lean and to the point but not without colour. A surprising, rich production.