Aida – photo supplied
Intense colours and intense emotions characterise the vibrant Ellen Kent production of Verdi’s Aida at Norwich Theatre Royal. As with Nabucco, which the company are also performing on this tour Verdi has gone back to Middle Eastern history to find a tale of conquest, revenge, slavery and sexual tension.
As ever there does seem to be a theme here of people being driven to butcher and abuse their neighbours with ever greater zeal by the priests who are safely exempt from the violence they encourage. Even the Pharoah’s daughter Amneris towards the end of the work questions just how much more blood these priests will demand.
We are in Egypt, where Amneris (Zarui Vardanean) has the captured daughter of the King of Ethiopia Aida (Olga Perrier) as her personal slave. Unsurprisingly Aida’s father Amonraso (Iurie Gisca) is on the warpath to recover his daughter and generally slaughter pillage and destroy along the way.
The Egyptians consult their goddess Isis (no, not that lot) to determine who should lead them into glorious victory over the Ethiopian interlopers. Step forward handsome young Radames, the very picture of testosterone in sandals. He gets the job, but has a troubling side problem. Amneris is madly in love with him, but unfortunately this ardour is unreciprocated as Radames (Giorgio Meladze) is madly in love with her slave Aida and she with him. He wants to prove his ardour to her by going into battle, but rather unhelpfully this would mean killing her father and brothers. Confused? So are quite a few of the main protagonists of this tale.
Whenever there is any hint of softening the bellicose intent of the Egyptians the high priest Ramfis booms into action, powered by the stunning bass Vadym Chernihovskiy.
There are many twists and turns in this tale but at its heart is the desperate love triangle between Aida, Amneris and Radames. Poor Aida has a rough time, captive slave to her love rival who discovers her secret and determines to thwart her. Meanwhile Aida is also agonising about her father, brothers and lover all intent on killing each other.
As the story unfolds it seems that true love may overcome patriotism and fear of those pesky priests as Radames struggles in the lead-up to his planned marriage to Amneris and inheritance of the Pharaoh’s throne. He stays the execution of the Ethiopian prisoners, including Amonraso, who of course immediately re-arm with revenge on their mind.
The complexities continue with twists and turns building up to a chilling climax. In the finest of opera traditions things start badly and then get much worse.
This production uses a spectacular semi circular set, with the warm hued sandstone contrasting with the stone cold hearts of the zealots on either side of the conflict. 
There are some of the crowd pleasing delights that characterise an Ellen Kent production, from a shower of golden glitter to a charming troupe of dancing girls scampering around the stage for an unusual bit of light relief. Sadly Norwich did not have room for the splendid black stallion enjoyed in some venues.
This performance was the very last night of a tour spread over four months with a five opera programme. We could have forgiven the cast for being a little demob happy, but every performance was faultless and beautifully timed and delivered, from the six principals to every member of the choir, ensemble and orchestra. Members of this cast are happy to give that bit extra, from the surtitle pilot in the circle who doubles as a trumpet soloist to the dextrous fire spinner (Adam Scott) who entertains the royal party (and the rest of us mortals) with a fine display of circus skill.
The story is epic and the action intense, but the real draw to this opera is the superb Verdi score. The two love rivals Amneris and Aida dominate much of the four acts, with Mezzo-Soprano Zarui Vardanean and Soprano Olga Perrier singing their hearts out with soaring performances. In Aida’s case this is frequently from a kneeling position after she has been on the receiving end of yet more slave abuse. Olga knows how to fall. Aida’s story is a heartbreaker and Olga captures the sadness and passion perfectly.
Ellen Kent has been producing these impressive opera tours for twenty five years and shows no sign of slowing down and resting on her laurels. She fizzes with enthusiasm for opera, telling me how she still enjoys every performance of her company, and how opera offers so much more than modern musicals can.
Her multi-talented and diverse cast will now all be heading for well earned breaks back in Moldova, Russia, France, Spain or wherever they are from. They can be proud of their achievement in delivering a memorable, colourful and spectacular production of Aida to an enthusiastic Norwich audience. 
©Julian Swainson
See my review of Verdi’s Nabucco by the same company here: