Aida: camels canned and missiles deployed in an outstanding new take on Verdi

Francesco Meli as Radames and Elena Stikhina as Aida, in the Royal Opera's new production - Alastair Muir
Francesco Meli as Radames and Elena Stikhina as Aida, in the Royal Opera's new production - Alastair Muir

“Lose the pyramids! Can the camels! Bring me a North Korean missile base!” We can imagine the frenzied attempts of the design team at Covent Garden to avoid any hint of Egyptian triumphalism in their new production of Verdi’s Aida. In order to understand today the love-torn dilemmas of its protagonists, they are clearly convinced we need to avoid any reference to this opera’s premiere for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1871, along with any of the copious and specific references to the locality, to golden temples, blossom groves, fragrant streams and soft breezes.

Director Robert Carsen is a master of the stylish operatic update, and here with his set designer Miriam Buether and costume designer AnneMarie Woods he has taken on the massive challenge of transposing one of opera’s most specific locales into a modern-day political arena. Grey concrete walls and military uniforms conjure up a repressive regime that acquires multi-national significance as the evening progresses, drawing elements not only from Russian, Chinese and Korean visual themes, but also from America. Here, Verdi’s famous triumphal march becomes a flag-draped, coffin-processing, memorialising of those lost in battle, uneasily close to parody.

It is all extremely clever, and carried through with sustained discipline and sophistication. But the issue is whether or not it helps to illuminate the dilemmas at the heart of Verdi’s opera. The piece is forever torn between the grandeur of the big set-piece scenes and the intimacy of the relationships it exposes. The national conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia is only the background to the love between Aida, daughter of the King of Ethiopia, and Radames, the captain of the Egyptian army.

On this level, the drama of those relationships is compellingly drawn here by two very fine lead performances. Elena Stikhina’s touching Aida is fragile, fearful, sometimes a little fluttery, but rising to moments of passionately focused clarity: a most affecting portrayal of doomed love. Francesco Meli’s ardent Radames has authority and expressive weight, though without all the warmth of tone we might expect.

As Aida’s rival for Radames’s love, the King of Egypt’s daughter Amneris, Agnieszka Rehlis is a forceful vocal personality, while Solomon Howard as the High Priest Ramfis has a stentorian force as he condemns Radames to death. As the warring kings, Ludovic Tézier’s angry King of Ethiopia scores over In Sung Sim’s King of Egypt, who has to spend most of his time in meaningless ceremonies honouring his regime.

The Royal Opera's new production of Aida - Alastair Muir
The Royal Opera's new production of Aida - Alastair Muir

Against this background, the evening is a triumph for Royal Opera Chorus, on tremendous form, and for the Royal Opera Orchestra who under Antonio Pappano draw out the transparency and inventiveness of Verdi’s score, its astonishing combination of chamber-music precision with overblown triumph.

The truth of Aida is that in the end the story is of political and human failure: any vision by Radames of using a marriage to Aida to unite their two nations is doomed, and their romantic aspirations are crushed as he is condemned to death and Aida joins him to die. So, offstage, totalitarianism triumphs. As the couple are finally, fatally confined in a gloomy silo filled with massive missiles, the only thing we imagine that might cap this surreal scene would be the arrival of Dr Strangelove to destroy us all.

On all levels a stimulating, outstandingly professional and well-realised evening.

In rep until Oct 12, then returning in May 2023. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk