All that is missing is for Hercule Poirot to come on and solve the mystery. The scene is an archaeological dig in Egypt in the late 19th century: a woman artist is sketching the ruins when a group of western archaeologists accompanied by young locals discovers a body among the remains of a temple.
Putting on an opera in the vast open arena of the Royal Albert Hall demands a touch of old-fashioned stage spectacle. How else can Raymond Gubbay, the promoter, hope to fill 18 performances in the two-week run, pulling in around 75,000 people?
This opening picture of Stephen Medcalf’s new production, splendidly designed by Isabella Bywater, certainly delivers the goods. The idea of setting the opera in the context of a modern exploration of ancient Egypt is cleverly done, though it could have made a stronger impact at the end, and Medcalf gets more stage effects out of the Royal Albert Hall machinery than anybody knew it could manage. Amneris’s handmaidens play in an ornamental pool of water, a nice change from the usual ballet, and the trial of Radames echoes up from a smoke-filled underground chamber. The artist’s sketches of the ruins also turn into scene-setting colour projections on the big screens – another nice touch.
None of this, though, stops the opera coming over as a night at the Pharaoh’s Royal Variety Performance with torture and incense thrown in. Getting Aida to impart a serious dramatic message is difficult even when the chorus is not dressed in silly hats and vast swathes of white linen. The bedding department at Peter Jones department store down the road must look ravaged.
Musical standards, as usual at operatic spectaculars here, are stunning only in their mediocrity. Indra Thomas’s Aida was vocally wayward, but came good at the end. Tiziana Carraro brought a dash of authentic Italian style to Amneris when she did not sound shrill and Marc Heller was the unromantic Radames. David Kempster’s solid Amonasro and Stanislav Shvets’s firm Ramfis were the best of the bunch, all of them testing conductor Andrew Greenwood’s co-ordination across the big hall, with the singers and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra alike being heavily amplified. There are three casts, so other performances may be more impressive.