Forget pyramids and palm trees. There’s not a grain of sand to be seen in The Royal Opera’s impressively radical new production of Verdi’s Aida and certainly no menagerie of exotic animals parading across the stage. Instead, director Robert Carsen has created an Egypt that has many parallels with that troubled nation today, or indeed any other where a leader’s rule is enforced by displays of overwhelming military might. We could be in Beijing, Pyongyang, Moscow or Myanmar.

Aida Triumphal March
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The sense of oppression is deepened by designer Miriam Buether’s monumental bunker-like set. Sunlight never penetrates this concrete mausoleum, presaging the tomb of the final act where the lovers Aida and Radamès are doomed to die. This is a production that reminds us constantly that Verdi’s theme is the pitiless nature of war and its shattering impact on life and love – all too relevant today.

But colour finds its way into this grey world, first through Verdi’s intensely dramatic score – conducted with painterly precision by Sir Antonio Pappano and played superbly by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House – and also in the costumes of Annemarie Woods, who has the vast chorus strut about in a series of impressive dress uniforms, their reds and greens glowing under Peter van Praet’s lighting.

Ludovic Tézier (Amonasro), Elena Stikhina (Aida)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Though Verdi provides several dances, we see only one that is choreographed (Rebecca Howell), where men in camouflage and heavy boots make impressively angular shapes to the playful score. The dance comes in the triumphal scene where the Egyptian army celebrates its victory over the invading Ethiopians, but where once we might have seen a parade of elephants and camels, here we watch a sombre ceremonial acceptance of the coffins of fallen comrades.

Verdi plunges two lovers into this unrelentingly harsh, hard-edged world. Radamès, commander of the Pharoah’s army, has fallen for the captured Aida, who, unbeknown to all, is the daughter of their enemy, the King of Ethiopia. Silvery Russian soprano Elena Stikhina sings Aida with an affecting, frail grace, her terror at losing Radamès as real as her steely determination to stick by him, even unto death. The only mystery is why she is so desperately in love with him. Italian tenor Francesco Meli sings Radamès well enough – though there were some upper register problems on first night – but his portrayal is wooden and bloodless; there’s simply no chemistry between the lovers.

Agnieszka Rehlis (Amneris)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

It’s a mystery too why Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt, should also be in love with him, but nevertheless Polish mezzo-soprano Agnieszka Rehlis made a huge impression in the role, making her house debut to shouts of acclaim. Her scheming princess is a totally believable character, allying her dazzling, darkly rich voice to a palpable sense of the dramatic.

Another exciting house debut comes from the American bass Soloman Howard as the High Priest Ramfis, transformed here into a high-ranking army officer. He has a huge stage presence, with a vast voice to match; commanding, effortless, astonishing, even terrifying. In fact, it’s a night for lower voices generally, with Ludovic Tézier as the Ethiopian king Amonasro and In-Sung Kim as his sworn enemy the King of Egypt, both in rock-solid form.

Francesco Meli (Radamès)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The Royal Opera Chorus can always be relied upon to stir the blood, but in this production they are truly exceptional, in particular the tenors and basses. The moment in Radamès’ trial scene where they are required to sing a difficult passage in hushed unison was chillingly magical, all the more so because, seated in serried rows, they could not make eye contact. It was one of many stunning moments of choral perfection in this production. And not only do they sing superbly, as troops they move with a precision that would impress a regimental sergeant major.

This is an Aida for the 21st century, with many pertinent things to say about oppression and nationalism. As Carsen says in the programme: “Theatre is not a museum, and one of our jobs is to rediscover the shock the opera had when it was first created, and to share the shock of that new with a modern audience. I would love them to feel that they were experiencing the piece as if they had never seen or heard it before.”