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Review: Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus

With Conductor Tim Redmond, orchestra leader Paula Muldoon, and its Chorus of over 100, Cambridge Philharmonic mounted a top-flight concert performance of Verdi’s Aida at West Road on Saturday evening.

Both a premonition of the emotional forces at work in the plot, and a foretaste of the standard of vocal delivery that would typify Cambridge Phil’s presentation came early in the first act with Radamès’ famous aria ‘Celeste Aida’.

Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (23837570)
Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (23837570)

American tenor, Michael Wade Lee’s expression of his love for Aida (soprano Linda Richardson) shook the hall with the impressive power of its unconfined passion.

As the programme notes reminded us, it was the aged Rossini (and he would know) who late in life declared, ‘May my colleagues forgive me for saying so, but Verdi is the only man capable of writing grand opera’.

And nowhere in the oeuvre was this remark more borne out than in Aida’s aria in Act One where Linda Richardson’s glorious voice revealed Verdi’s supreme ability to express conflicting emotions in music of such dramatic force.

Aida is a tale of jealousy and dilemma, working on a grand scale with materials drawn from antiquity, but equally a domestic tragedy (like Othello, another story which appealed to Verdi) strikingly relevant to all men and women at all points in history.

And neither is Aida a tale simply of two thwarted lovers.

The mind simply boggles at the ability of the composer to represent, equally strongly, situations which give such depth and complexity to the opera; the recognition of King Amonasro by his daughter, the supplication of the captives, the plea of Radamès and the people in their favour, the protests of the priests who demand their death, the diverse passions which agitate Radamès, Aida, and Amneris, the hope of vengeance that Amonasro cherishes – the list goes on.

And all these conflicting emotions are assembled in an incomparable range of musical expression, from the tenderest lyricism to the pomp and ceremony of the marches and trumpet tunes. No wonder Verdi was recalled 32 times when Aida was first performed at La Scala in 1872 (the premiere having been in Cairo the previous year).

Such a masterpiece calls for a uniformly excellent cast of singers, and on Saturday evening this is exactly what we had.

From her Act One duet with Aida where she is full of jealousy (later a trio for them and Radamès) to her dominance in the final act where her remorse leads to her intercession with the gods to vouchsafe heaven to her would-be lover and husband, mezzo-soprano’s Mirouslava Yordanova’s Amneris was played with intense conviction.

Stephen Richardson’s Ramfis, and Richard Wiegold’s Egyptian King combined to create just the right levels of authority and menace, while the exquisite voice of soprano Madison Nonoa as the High Priestess gave the appropriate ethereal mystery to her presence.

We had to wait some time before Amonasro made his appearance, but it was worth the wait to hear the commanding voice of Australian baritone Nicholas Lester in his threatening pivotal role.

His duet with Linda Richardson as he worked on the emotions she had for her native land had enormous dramatic effectiveness, a successful reflection (found also in the last act of Otello, the actual beginning of Shakespeare’s Othello V.1) of Verdi’s brilliant ability to advance the drama in purely musical terms.

Aida also calls for musicianship of a high order. Tim Redmond coaxed every last piece of talent, of which there is an abundance, from within the orchestra’s ranks to produce the ‘oriental’ sequences, while the brass sections (featuring even a cimbasso) rose to the occasion to produce the kind of overwhelming effect for which all opera, and especially this opera, is so famous. Cambridge Philharmonic’s Chorus was a complementary tower of strength for it all.

The standing ovation at the end was a fitting appreciation for the quality of the music-playing throughout, as well as for the representation the production had given, through some exceptional singing, to the diversity of characterisation and strength of dramatic action that reveals in Aida the unusually high level of its composer’s inspiration.


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