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Review: Opera North Aida at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

Last summer some of the UK’s leading companies converged on Liverpool to pledge a year-round programme of opera for city audiences.

Glyndebourne, Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and Opera North all committed to bringing the best of the powerful artform to Liverpool, either through full stage performances, screenings, or concert versions of operatic favourites.

Leeds-based Opera North is currently touring a concert staging of Verdi’s Egyptian classic Aida to key cities, and a bustling Friday night at the Philharmonic Hall suggests there’s certainly an audience for high quality productions.

And this production of Aida is certainly that.

It’s also somewhat more than a ‘concert version’ - under theatre director Annabel Arden it’s more a semi-staged production, where the main cast act on a pared-back, bare bones strip of set.

Arden and designer Joanna Parker have opted for a modern visual aesthetic, all dull combat fatigues, suits for the ‘suits’, and metal utility furniture and single door frame.

Alessandra Volpe (Amneris) and Alexandra Zabala (Aida). Top: Zabala and Rafael Rojas (Radames). Photos by Clive Barda

A cloth – draped shroud-like above the stage – is used as a rudimentary screen, with images of dusty destruction that put this production somewhere in the middle of a contemporary Middle Eastern war zone as much as Verdi’s original conceit of an ancient conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia.

The action takes place in front of, in and around Opera North’s superlative orchestra, liberated from the pit to take its place centre stage, and bringing an extra vibrancy and sparkle to the score in the process. It becomes part of the sense of theatre – not least when a phalanx of trumpeters joins the action.

Meanwhile the chorus, clad in unobtrusive black, takes its place in the choir stalls, impressing with a simply sublime Possente Ftha in Scene 2, and later a magnificent, rich wall of sound in the heralding of the Egyptians’ victory under Rafael Rojas’ warrior Radames.

This stripped back setting creates a lovely clarity of storytelling – because beneath any grand staging, scenery, costumes and massed voices of course, at heart Aida is a story about the relationship between a handful of individuals.

Opera North has assembled an impressive cast of soloists, and the work is strongly sung throughout.

Alessandra Volpe has evident fun as the tempestuous, sensual Amneris, the King of Egypt’s daughter who in her love for Radames finds herself an imperious part of a destructive love triangle, while Eric Greene has great stage presence as the still and dignified Ethiopian monarch Amonasro.

And bass Petri Lindroos (who confusingly shares the same name as a Finnish death/folk metal singer!) brings a wonderfully rich and sonorous quality to the high priest Ramfis.

Love, honour, betrayal, redemption - now that's a proper night out.

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