Anyone looking for brazen pomp in Verdi’s opera Aida will by hard put to find it in our Swiss city. It is inner turmoil caused by passion, jealousy, ambition and loyalty that defines Tatjana Gürbaca's production, which is at great variance from the histrionic spectacles that wallowed in showy fanfare and decoration. Anything that smacks of Egyptian − papyrus, Sphinx, pyramids − has been banished from the stage.

Premiered in Milan in 1871 to a highly receptive audience, Aida made a case for Verdi’s meticulous study of ancient Egypt. But as convincingly, it showed the composer’s draw to a story of plunder and invasion in light of the conflict that split Europe at the time: the Franco-Prussian War. So contrary to popular belief, Aida was not meant to be “all show.”

In Zurich, set designer Klaus Grünberg commendably separates the action of the principals from that of the crowds. For the “private” sphere of action, he draws on the cool slate blues, bone and anthracite colours that hallmark the paintings of another great Italian, the painter Giorgio Morandi. Action in the “public” sphere, by contrast, goes on behind huge semi-transparent gauze curtains that both flank the stage and hang at its rear. Indeed, the full stage is given only twice: once, when the Ethiopian slave girl Aida confesses to her father Amonasro that she loves Radamès, commander of the enemy Egyptian army; and secondly, when Radamès’s survival − after an act of treason that Aida has spurred − is condemned to death. Marked by “an opening of the Heavens” in the form of a huge downpour, this second full stage at the end of Act III, is highly dramatic. Thousands of white plaster chips catapult down just behind the love-hungry Amneris, Aida’s rival, coating the scene with white “smoke” and a choppy surface of chalklike debris.

Based on the men’s dapper Hollywood suits and a flickering TV that dates from the 60s, the opera comes into the 20th century. Cleverly, the separation between the public and private space gives a green light to graphic portrayals of acts of war, which call up the shocking images of Abu Ghraib. We see a vignette of a captive soldier on all fours, masked as a dog and held at the end of a leash by his leering captors. Other allusions to rape and torture are not for the faint of heart. Even Radamès, interrogated late in the opera, is strung up to electric cables with a pointed hood over his face. 

As a fairly straightforward macho, Radamès (Aleksandrs Antonenko) gave a terrific performance, heralding the evening for us with “I will build you a throne close to the sun!” much the same way he sang of the future to his “Celeste Aida”. Consistently powerful, his voice was a match for the otherwise unparalleled vocal ability of his counterpart, Latonia Moore. And while his strong body language was perfect for the commander and patriot, the unstudied soldier in him had all the scruffiness of a three-day beard. 

Veronia Simeoni also gave a strong performance as the pining Amneris, who duped Aida into revealing herself as an arch rival. She called up a good deal of compassion, even if − by tattling – she ultimately condemned Radamès to death. Andrzej Dobber’s Amonasro, Ethiopian king and Aida’s father, was a little uneven, his voice seeming to have limited modulation, particularly in the presence of the powerhouses who sang the two leads. When, however, he probed his daughter’s dilemma − promising optimistically that she would once again enjoy “Fatherland, throne and love” − he showed his voice at its best. His character also pointed to the strengths and pitfalls of the child-parent relationship, a favourite Verdi theme.

Wenwei Zhang gave us a noble Ramfis, his resonant bass well suited to the role. In keeping with stage direction, he passed a scrub bucket to the defeated Aida when he left the stage; demeaning, indeed, but strictly beyond the wildest imagination of a High Priest. I’d have gladly been spared that and the other hackneyed expressions of forced servility, given that Latonia Moore’s vocal performance as Aida was so compelling. I’m not sure that the role can be sung any better. Given her tremendous stamina and resonance, Moore has secured a position as one of today’s great Aidas. Here in Zurich, she seamlessly slid between her upper and lower range, several times holding her own against − and above − the full opera cast of some 100 singers and as many musicians. A distinctively malleable, rich sound that riveted undivided attention, Moore’s voice was, in short, simply radiant.

Underpinning the performance, the fine Philharmonia Zürich under Renato Palumbo worked its magic. Oboe and cello solos shone, but the violins set the score with soft lamentations through to bursts of Heaven from the very start, and the whole configuration held a clear dialogue with a cast. Another time, perhaps the handful of short orchestral interludes could be played and given their just due, without the “supplement” of interpretive pantomime going on above the pit.