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Monday, 26 February, 2001, 16:44 GMT
When Albert met Aida
Renata Skarelyte and John Keyes as Amneris and Radames
Renata Skarelyte and John Keyes as Amneris and Radames
Verdi's Aida is indisputably one of the world's most popular operas. It opened for the first of its 20 performances at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday.

Always a spectacle, the lavish opera has tempted countries to fall over themselves to outdo each other with more and more memorable stagings.

China staged a performance in a Shanghai football stadium in November 2000, with a cast of 3,000 including 2,000 walk-on parts for police.

The tale of an Egyptian commander and his love for an Ethiopian slave girl, is staged annually in Egypt, usually in Luxor.

A 3m performance took place at the pyramids in Giza, Egypt, in 1998, for the first time in more than a decade.

Big impression

And Aida is back in fashion yet again as the 100th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi's death spawns countless tributes to the great Italian composer.

Raymond Gubbay's show is directed by David Freeman, leading the same team which staged Madam Butterfly and Tosca in 1999.


Amneris (Renata Skarelyte) discovers Aida's (Tamsin Dives) secret love for her betrothed
The opera was first staged in Cairo in 1871, the year the Royal Albert Hall opened.

Even the stage of the Albert Hall pales in comparison to a football stadium or the pyramids, but for this production it seems to have grown to three times its size.

Designer David Roger has gone for the big impression rather than trying to crowd and confuse the stage, using as decoration two giant God sculptures and a symbolic row of sphinxes.

To complete the "authentic" picture, performers sported Egyptian costume and hairstyles.

Stylised choreography makes the most of the free space, with crowd scenes and balletic set pieces weaving to draw and seduce the eye.

Ikea sale

The decision to stage it in the round certainly intensifies the dramatic effect.

Unfortunately with the audience closer to the action, the early impact of the climactic triumph scene is reduced - we're too close to the grins of slaves carrying the unimpressive spoils of the conquered foe, looking for all the world as if they've got them from the Ikea sale.

But again the choreography and use of space wins out to deliver a visual tour de force as the scene and the famous score bring the act to its conclusion.

A raised dais behind the BBC Concert Orchestra, holding Pharaoh and his ministers for the triumph and other crowd scenes, expands the stage even further and creates the illusion of grandeur and majesty.

However, the set dwarfs the central performances uncomfortably.

Competition

Tamsin Dives, as one of three rotating Aidas in this production, has a beautiful voice, but does not command - or is not allowed - enough stage presence to stand out among the scores of extras.

Her doomed relationship with Egyptian commander Radames (John Keyes) does not manage to capture the imagination against the visual and aural competition.

It is Renata Skarelyte as Amneris who, of the three protagonists, makes the sharpest impression.

Purists in the audience were disappointed that the opera was sung in English, but the translation, by Amanda Holden, is clear and simple.

Aida runs at the Royal Albert Hall until 10 March, then tours Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield.

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See also:

27 Jan 01 | Entertainment
Giuseppe Verdi: Symbol of Italy
14 Oct 98 | Middle East
Aida comes home
04 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Shanghai stages biggest Aida
24 Mar 00 | Entertainment
Sir Elton's Aida hits Broadway
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