If it's Aida, there must be elephants, right? Not for David McVicar. His new production for the Royal Opera House is stripped of the hoary sword and sandal cliches epitomised by the Taylor/Burton Cleopatra. No pyramids, no sphinxes and definitely no elephants.
But McVicar provides a rather different sort of spectacle. Not with the pared-down, dimly-lit set, which is little more than a giant revolving wall. The thought and by the looks of it the money too has gone into the two hundred or so performers who pack the stage for the first two acts.
Bare-breasted priestesses execute a blood-drenched mass human sacrifice to appease the gods before the great warrior Radames leads the Egyptians into battle. Near-naked slave girls perform a fertility dance for his admirer the princess Amneris while she awaits his return. As Radames returns victorious in the famous triumphal march scene, flayed corpses are suspended swaying above the massed forces of strutting samurai-style warriors, cowering sari-clad slaves, and terrifying priests in black and white zombie makeup. The King of Egypt sports a towering headpiece and a couple of human accessories - a boy pharoah and a slave crawling on all fours. Amneris is imperious in painted face and lofty mohawk, a cross between a King's Road punk and Tina Turner in Mad Max.
It's not always visually coherent, but you can't complain there's nothing to look at. And if the thrall of religion, Verdi's sly poke at the overweening Vatican, is underplayed, the brutal realities of the exercise of power are not shirked.
For the final two acts, the crowds disappear and the heart of Verdi's drama is revealed as Radames betrays his country for the love of Aida and the jealous Amneris takes her revenge. McVicar makes the transition between the public and private worlds an abrupt one as the intimate drama plays out on the still-bare stage.
The standout performances came from the sterling ROH Chorus and from Marcelo Alvarez as Radames. He doesn't truthfully have the vocal heft for the part, but his musicality and engagement won through. Micaela Carosi's voice is right for the title role, but she lacks the pianissimo and clean high notes which would turn "O patria mia" from a nice tune into a heartbreaking showstopper. Marianne Cornetti's Amneris had a compelling power but little subtlety. Robert Lloyd as the King and Marco Vratogna as Aida's father Amonasro were quite acceptable.
The biggest disappointment of the evening was Nicola Luisotti's fast yet surprisingly flabby conducting. The Royal Opera House orchestra played impeccably for him, and he did maintain a singer-friendly volume, but his polite, refined style lacked urgency. If only there'd been half as much blood and guts in the pit as there was on stage.