No one could accuse last year’s production of Aida at the Royal Opera House of playing it safe. Faced with an opera that has a tendency to Egyptian high camp at the best of times, the producer David McVicar went for broke – bare-breasted female dancers, a sadistic male torture scene and human carcases hanging from the ceiling. Who ever knew the ancient world looked so much like an underground New York sex club?
The cast at this first revival treat the lurid goings-on with cautious disdain. Avoiding the gloomy rear of the stage, where they might get caught up in gory bloodletting, they do what singers always do when no better idea is put in front of them. They make for the front, wave their arms up and down, and sing. Sounds like a traditional, old staging of Aida? Exactly. In one year this production has gone from shock-horror tosigh-yawn.
The overwhelming strength of this revival is its team of A-grade voices. Prime among them is Russian mezzo Olga Borodina, an Amneris more imposing, less spiteful than usual. Though no longer in the first flush of youth (the top of the voice comes with a hard edge), she sings with enough of her old magnificence to preside over the performance with regal authority.
Nor are the other singers overshadowed. Liudmyla Monastyrska, stepping late into the role of Aida, is a major talent. Pouring out a stream of strong, lyrical soprano tone, she hardly ever seems to need to stop for breath, and the only downside is her heavily accented Italian. She might as well be singing in hieroglyphics for all one can understand.
Having graduated up the Verdi ladder to the top rung of heroic tenor, Roberto Alagna makes an entirely plausible Radames.
What he lacks in romantic warmth, he makes up these days in clarion force, brandishing metallic top notes like an Egyptian bronze trumpet. There is more sturdy singing from Michael Volle’s Amonasro and Vitalij Kowaljow as an impressive, black-voiced Ramfis.
In the pit, conductor Fabio Luisi ensures strict Italian style, but the score of Aida ventures to daring extremes that his no-nonsense discipline denies. All told, this is an evening for voices pure and simple – just like Aida always used to be.