Aida is one of Verdi's incontrovertible masterpieces, with a brilliant score and a superb dramatic continuum in Acts 3 and 4, but every new production faces the same dilemmas of how to make sense of its paraphernalia while giving the right emphasis to the intimacies of the love triangle. Few directors have challenged the overwhelming Egyptian coordinates of the libretto and most of the time what we see on stage is a half-hearted attempt to superficial historicism. For its second season after the re-opening of the theatre in 1997, the Teatro Real went the whole hog and commissioned an unapologetically clichéd production that is revived here for the first time. Despite some scenic achievements, the dated and clumsy direction came near to spoiling an otherwise great rendition from a top-notch vocal cast.

Director and set designer Hugo de Ana's efforts are all directed towards creating grand still images for each scene. He achieves amazing stage profundity through a combination of sets, mirrors and projections that really do the trick. Sumptuousness pays off in Act 2, when a massive pyramid advances from the rear of the stage bringing the whole male chorus with it. Apart from that, the production is a showy farrago of empty clichés (mummies included), poorly put together with nonsensical choreography and almost absent stage direction. Among other flaws, the depiction of the Nubian captives as a primitive people, in ridiculous blackface, strikes me as offensive. This production may have already felt dusty twenty years ago, but now it just feels out of place.

The main attraction of the night was the confrontation of the opposing vocal and dramatic styles of the two rival princesses. Liudmyla Monastyrska relied on her powerful spinto soprano and almost won the contest. Her incredibly rich and thick timbre, with characteristically guttural colours, compensated for an evident lack of dramatic depth and her full-throated top notes blasted joyfully over the orchestra and the chorus in the Act 2 ensembles. More convincing in the heroic parts, her mighty "Ritorna vincitor" promised a great night that did not fully materialise in Acts 3 and 4, where the lyrical side of the role showed her weaknesses, due to blurred diction, an "O patria mia" with pallid but well-executed pianissimi, and a cold final duet.

Violeta Urmana’s Amneris was the exact opposite, a feat of subtle acting and vocal finesse. In a career marked by technical excellence, she has reconquered the mezzo repertoire, her chest register a little hollow but healthy and well projected. Her elegant phrasing, sustained by perfect diction, gave her Amneris true royal stature in Acts 1 and 2, where she relished her poised command over Aida. As she cleverly progressed through the role from princess to rejected lover, she gave it her all in an unbridled Act 4, crowned with strained but powerful B flats.

Gregory Kunde was a convincing, albeit superficial, Radamès. With his voice fresher than usual, he sang with astonishing confidence and started with an accomplished "Celeste Aida", reinforcing the sense of the line with portamenti through the passaggio and even making a timid but commendable attempt to execute the final morendo. In duet, his fiery accent lost traction at the ends of lines, due to his sometimes arbitrary phrasing. His "Nel fiero anelito" in Act 3 could have sounded more heroic but he treated the audience to a beautiful "misto" B flat, rarely sung dolce as Verdi intended. He opposed Amneris with dignity in Act 4, though missed the elegiac tone of "O terra addio", despite good mezza-voci.

George Gagnidze was a husky Amonasro, plebeian but heroic, with a solid, nasal baritone and ringing top notes. Roberto Tagliavini, with his beautiful lyrical bass, gave Ramfis an authoritative touch of calm dignity. Soloman Howard's King provided good vocal contrast to Ramfis, but his phrasing was a bit dull. The female chorus was perfectly nuanced in their scene with Amneris in Act 2. The male voices, on the other hand, sounded harsh and uncontrolled in big ensembles. Nicola Luisotti, the new associate conductor of the Teatro Real, may be starting to lead a substantial improvement in the orchestra's Italian repertoire. Although it has not yet reached a distinctive Italianate sound, it was sufficient in the big numbers and the strings achieved beautiful colours and dynamics in Act 3, especially in the intense duo between Aida and Amonasro, a short glimpse of its as yet untapped potential.