Aida inspired by Egypt

Jonathan Lennie and Stephen Medcalf Jonathan Lennie and Stephen Medcalf
Posted: Wed Feb 8 2012

Verdi's 'Aida' has long been associated with pomp and bombast. Amid the ruins of Ancient Egypt, Time Out meets director Stephen Medcalf, whose new production focuses on the love story at its heart

There is an air of excitement in the papyrus shop. Stephen Medcalf is having his photograph taken by the brother of a recently deceased Egyptian man, posing underneath the large gilt-framed image of his late doppelgänger. It was our guide Tayeb's idea to honour his friend, of whom Medcalf reminds him. The good-natured opera director obliges and is rewarded by a demonstration of how papyrus is made (strips of the plant are laid together and dried in a press). As Medcalf is directing a production of Verdi's Ancient Egyptset 'Aida' back in London, he decides to buy a handful of blank scrolls - not the expensive painted ones, you understand. The photographic favour notwithstanding, he is a cool £40 down. Medcalf shrugs it off, amused by the unwavering business acumen of the locals. After all, this is a country in the process of revolution, with few tourists; a place here everything has to be haggled for and all interactions are oiled with baksheesh (tips), the invisible tax for even the most perfunctory service, requested or not.

Having been woken at 5am by the amplified call to prayer from the local mosque, I was still bleary-eyed when I caught up with Medcalf earlier at the Ramesseum as he researched the area for his forthcoming production.

There, a French archaeological project was underway both excavating and restoring the ancient temple of Rameses II; and it is sites like this and the Valley of the Artisans (our next stop), with its
tombs carved out of the limestone and decorated with hieroglyphic texts depicting glorious deeds and sacred rituals, that have inspired Isabella Bywater's designs for the forthcoming 'Aida', an in-the-round
version at the Royal Albert Hall.

Clearly, we are a long way from South Kensington. Across the River Nile, the minarets of Luxor rise above the higgledypiggledy houses and shops. The streets are full of men in the ubiquitous jellabiya - traditional olive or grey kaftan-like garment topped with a turban - and many of the women in black burkhas. With the country in political transition, the tension is obvious, exemplified by a succession of roadblocks by police wielding Kalashnikovs, checking everyone's papers. Once we cross the river, however, things seem more relaxed. Beyond the town the roads are full of motorbikes and horse-drawn carts loaded with the harvested sugar cane that grows everywhere in the lush river valley that flanks the Nile. In this narrow green strip about 90 per cent of the Egyptian population exist, next to the lifegiving properties of the river; a distinct, verdant division between the land of the living and the arid mountain kingdom of the dead.

'Aida' was commissioned from Verdi by Ismail Pasha, the khedive of Egypt, and was first performed at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo in 1871. (Contrary to popular belief it was neither written to celebrate the opening of the venue nor the Suez Canal.) The opera tells of Aida - an Ethiopian princess held captive in Egypt, where she serves Amneris, daughter of King Amonasro and her rival for the love for the army captain Radames. This love triangle is at the heart of the opera, yet a tradition exists of productions with colossal sets reducing things to mere spectacle.

Medcalf is well aware of the pitfalls. ' It has become an occasion piece done in huge venues, so it has become clichéd and a modern operatic joke. So you take a great risk if you include anything that looks like a pyramid.' Though it is large, the Royal Albert Hall, Medcalf believes, 'is a surprisingly intimate venue for opera. When you have the orchestra [Royal Philharmonic] to one end and opera effectively in the round - you lose the barrier between you and the singers and can get a feeling of the intimate relationships.'

This will be his fourth production of the work. He laughs, recalling his first: 'I started at New Sussex Opera in the 1980s; it was the first major production I ever did. It was hugely entertaining because I set it in modern time, and had the back doors of Brighton Dome open up and a Land Rover drive in. At the dress rehearsal a policeman was passing outside and thought it would be fun if he stood in the jeep, so the doors opened and the vehicle arrived on stage with him in it. He was then duly received by the Amonasro of the time, who clearly thought it would be a laugh.'

Mercifully, he has no such plans to repeat such a feat.

Stephen Medcalf directs an in-the-round production of Verdi's opera 'Aida' at the Royal Albert Hall, Feb 23-March 11 2012.