In 1951, Royal Opera singer, teacher and conductor Audrey Langford and producer Ande Anderson, later Covent Garden’s Director of Productions, amassed an ensemble for the postwar Festival of Britain. From this sprang Kentish Opera. Working with some top directors (John Cox, John Copley and Colin Graham) and conductors (Alex Ingram, and their present patron, David Parry) landed Kentish Opera in the near-top bracket: up there with Dorset, Buxton and Longborough. Since being dumped by the Arts Council, they have concentrated on performing in Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and Bromley.
Verdi’s Aida is no newcomer to their vast repertoire which also includes Nabucco; a shivering, top-class Rigoletto; The Force of Destiny, Macbeth, La Traviata. They produced an exemplary Orpheus in the Underworld in 2009. English opera flourished early on: Riders to the Sea (Vaughan Williams/J. M. Synge), Sir John in Love (also VW), and Ethel Smyth’s The Boatwains’s Mate. Theirs is a track record to envy. A pity, then, if the first Memphis scene of this Aida fell a bit flat.
Toby Scholz is a tenor of hefty repertoire, but he needs more careful direction than he gets here. Some lacklustre positioning of the principals (and not least Radames’ ridiculous forays with a flag), left things looking pretty plain. Scholz’s voice rides attractively over the full chorus – no mean feat, for Kentish Opera choruses are impressive, meaty affairs. But neither Theresa Goble’s mature, lordly Princess Amneris nor Australian-born mezzo Laura Wolk-Lewandowicz’s passive, put-upon Aida , or even Robyn Sevastos’s excitably precise conducting, help. The first quarter of an hour plodded emotionally, as well as visually.
And yet the ceremonial scenes in praise of the god Ptah, featuring a large chorus resplendently choreographed, prove the very reverse: vital, energised. The dances (the staggeringly experienced Terry John Bates, manipulating seven girl dancers) are beautifully blocked and skilfully executed. The visuals hum with life. Soprano Wolk-Lewanowicz has the attacking power to pull off Mozart’s blazing Donna Anna; and though her acting offers nothing feisty here, when she lets rip she shines: exciting, galvanising, electrifying even: vocally every inch an Aida.
Enid Strutt’s set – she has created well over 40 for this company – has its strengths but also some drawbacks. Reliance on a single set of central steps limited the scope for inventive movement. Far more impressive were Carol Stevenson’s costumes – some of the chorus ones superb, the warriors’ well-researched.
There were a few iffy chords from Robyn Sevastos’ strings (in those wonderful Lohengrin-like effects Verdi unveils in scene 1, for instance); but not many. Orchestral detail beamed out, like the oboe hugging Radames’ ‘Céleste Aida’. Neither Marcin Gesla’s King of Egypt nor Thomas Faulkner’s High Priest proved magnetic – both slightly but unacceptably below the note (Faulkner especially, something that needs addressing, for this Royal Academy-trained bass, Wexford’s Sarastro and Scottish Opera’s Banquo, can hatch a nicer sound than this.) I’d have loved to hear Swedish bass-baritone Håkan Vramsmo, a singer of great charisma and with a voice to die for, sing Amonasro, captive king of the Nubians and Aida’s father.
I needn’t have worried. Vramsmo alternated Mark Saberton, one of the most impressive character singers of his generation: a major star this, or any, company should forthwith engage to sing Verdi’s (or Salieri’s) Falstaff, for he is tailor-made for the role. Saberton’s seething arrival amid imprisoned entourage lifted this Aida onto an entire new plane. Here is a singer whose talent and experience place him on a European, even worldwide, plane. The voice, like the persona, are stupendous. Saberton knows how to produce the notes, and to mould them: he delivers them with astounding authority, firmness and ferocity. Rolling those mesmerising, suffering eyes, Saberton (he was Kentish Opera’s vile, beastly Rigoletto) is an electrifying performer to watch and a sensational one to hear. It’s his performance that puts this Aida into the realm of a great production.