Who needs grandiose sets to accompany this staple of the international opera menu? For Verdi's Aida, Opera North couldn’t afford an array of fibre glass sphinxes and sarcophagi anyway, and the huge Victorian organ pipes of Leeds Town Hall can bear a passing resemblance to the columns of a Theban temple, so this lean production on a narrow strip of the concert stage seems obliged to be unmummified, as well as majestic. It is both.

Opera North’s concert staging of Verdi’s <i>Aida</i> © Clive Barda
Opera North’s concert staging of Verdi’s Aida
© Clive Barda

The terrific Chorus of Opera North (under Oliver Rundell) supplies much of the majesty and also the mob frenzy, particularly during the Triumphal March in Act 2, when it is the main element, because there is no space for spectacular marching or celebratory dancing. There is room for the King of Egypt (Michael Druiett) to wander on just as “Al Re che il Delta regge” is reached, smirking and eating a sandwich. Druiett’s elegant baritone and aristocratic demeanour fit the part, but his function is to help expose the xenophobic vaingloriousness of the whole business. This is further emphasised by the minimal set: bare stools and tables dominated by video projections (Joanna Parker) on a sheet draped lopsidedly above the orchestra. Designed by Dick Straker, these give the impression of the body as a site of conflict, with hands caked in drying clay, a military epaulette, a mouth opening in pain, along with shocking images of destroyed buildings in Syria. They are affecting, but at times become unnecessary additions hovering over the action.

Rafael Rojas (Radamès) and Alexandra Zabala (Aida) © Clive Barda
Rafael Rojas (Radamès) and Alexandra Zabala (Aida)
© Clive Barda

This emphasis on anti-militarism is in line with the thinking of Verdi who, according to director Annabel Arden interviewed in the programme, “thought that war was insanity”. It is strangely liberating, as if we are being enabled to see the intimate relationships of the love triangle in a series of televisual close-ups. Alexandra Zabala, with no thick blue eye make-up visible, but dressed in cargo pants and T-shirt, is much more of an alien captive than a princess. Her subtly nuanced, Italianate style, and her effortless delivery of high notes in piano moments enhance the impression of despair and vulnerability. Her “O patria mia” was a moving expression of homesickness, lacking any hint of stridency. Her lover, the military leader Radamès, was sung by Opera North veteran Rafael Rojas who, predictably for those who have heard him before, had no problem with the demanding “Celeste Aida”, when he is spruced up in a uniform but who, surprisingly, returns from the war desolate, in dirty, scruffy grey, as if torn up by what he has experienced and a general loss of belief, rather than his love. The middle of the scene at the end when he is suffocating in the tomb with Aida, when he sings “La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse” (The fatal stone is closing over me) with great feeling and subtlety, with just an occasional sob, was his most memorable moment in the performance.

Alessandra Volpe (Amneris) © Clive Barda
Alessandra Volpe (Amneris)
© Clive Barda

Sultry mezzo Alessandra Volpe sang Amneris with not only a magnificently expressive voice but considerable acting ability, excelling more in Acts 3 and 4 than before the interval. Baritone Eric Greene had charisma, poise and credibility as the Ethiopian king, Amonasro, and a huge, impressive voice. Finnish bass Petri Lindoos, the chief priest Ramfis, mouthpiece of the state, was simply overwhelming, frighteningly so, his voice booming out the pronouncements of a rigidly conservative system. Lindoos makes a good villain.

Alexandra Zabala as Aida and Eric Greene as Amonasro © Clive Barda
Alexandra Zabala as Aida and Eric Greene as Amonasro
© Clive Barda

Conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, who was with Opera North for Turandot at the Town Hall two years ago, drew marvellous sounds from the orchestra, particularly the strings. They did not overwhelm the singers, a built-in problem for Aida, although occasionally they come close. The traditional ceremonial trumpets were used for the Triumphal March, played perfectly.

This welcome, radical interpretation of Aida is in the spirit of the times, leading us to reflect upon the current situation in the Middle East, yet still allowing us to be enthralled by Verdi's music.

****1