In the event, this Egypt, with hints of pyramids, grand tombs, steps and deities, is everywhere and nowhere. And while it is a relief not to spend an evening looking at boots on the ground, there is nothing about this Egypt that makes the audience think, as it can and should when confronted with the great truths that opera can reveal: could happen to anyone, could happen to me.
Not until the scene in which a warring but defeated father demands loyalty of a daughter who loves his rival in battle, does this Aida take on an emotional life. With African-American soprano Latonia Moore as the stricken Aida, now slave to an Egyptian princess, and Musa Ngqungwana as her father Amonasro, the king of Ethiopia, Egypt's contempt for difference is made visible.
In addition to this imaginative and timely casting, at the eleventh hour Robert Winslade-Anderson stood in for bass Brindley Sherratt, apparently giving the Egyptian king inside information on the Ethiopian mindset.
Physical theatre group Improbable take the Nile to the Coliseum. Photo: Tristram Kenton
While not all the singing is as rich and creamy as the silk (and in truth, displays of flag-waving and -folding become wearing, especially in the Royal Wootton Basset-style repatriation ceremony that somewhat thuddingly replaces the usual triumphal dancing), these three, plus Eleanor Dennis as the High Priestess, and Matthew Best as the King are on good form. Gwyn Hughes Jones settled into a reliable soldier suitor Radamès; but with wayward intonation, Michelle DeYoung as jealous Amneris was on shaky ground.
DeYoung's silk moth costume, a confection of wings, folds and pleats, another, a chrysalis, a third, a simple caterpillar tube, are among the dozens of glamorous outfits that make a big statement: English National Opera may have to trim its sails to stay afloat, but it won't run aground for want of a few yards of canvas.
Michelle DeYoung in silk moth gown, and the women of the excellent English National Opera Chorus. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Tom Pye's grand set, Bruno Poet's rich lighting and Basil Twist's silk effects all heave ho strenuously: it feels, however, as though everyone is trying just a bit too hard. The last word in glamour is nonchalant, surely, not look-at-me.
ENO's wonderful chorus, in bombastic and opulent wear, is mesmerising singing a prayerful pianissimo, but felt a little underpowered in the big, big numbers. The orchestra under Keri-Lynn Wilson – a welcome return after her house debut in 2014 – was again never quite overwhelming in the Verdi marches that can knock you sideways, and the tempo felt langorous. The first night over-ran by 20 minutes; that's a lot of trains missed by a national company's supporters. Still, who are we to complain? The dress rehearsal for Aida in 1872 lasted eight hours.
Aida is sung in English, with English surtitles.
|What||Aida review , English National Opera|
|Where||English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
28 Sep 17 – 02 Dec 17, Times vary; 16 performances
|Price||£12 - £125|
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|