Verdi’s Aida, more than almost any other opera in the canon, immediately raises expectations of spectacle and lavish production. Even without apocryphal elephants, we’re used to palm trees, desert sands, hieroglyphs and pyramids. In his new production, premiered at the Royal Opera House last autumn and now revived for the first time, Robert Carsen strips all that away, and instead focusses on the brutality of war and the modern military state. After all, as he points out, “the word ‘guerra’ is sung... no less than 39 times in the first scene alone.” So the sets are brutalist, dark and monolithic. 

Angel Blue (Aida)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Deftly capturing the common iconography of China, Russia and the US, colour is mostly confined to flags and uniforms as potent symbols of power and war, with the downtrodden Ethiopians in drab beige. This is highly effective, and could have completely pulled focus from the love triangle drama, were it not for strong performances from all three of the central characters. The backdrop of superpower domination is even there in the final tomb, now transformed into some kind of armoury. So the final thing we see before curtain down, as the two doomed lovers disappear behind the shelves, is racks of missiles, some pointing directly at the audience.

SeokJong Baek (Radamès) and Angel Blue (Aida)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Once a little early constriction in the higher register was gone, SeokJong Baek’s tenor blossomed and as his Radamès developed, as too did his interactions with Aida and Amneris. As is often the way with pared back staging, he and Angel Blue (Aida) suffered slightly in Act 3 from having to fill a vast, unadorned stage, and both resorted to a certain amount of striding and singing in opposite directions rather than engaging directly. However, Blue’s rich power was impressive throughout, cutting through even the thickest of orchestral textures without any hint of strain, as well as impressively controlling pianissimo moments at the top of her range. 

Soloman Howard (Ramfis) and Elīna Garanča (Amneris)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

But it was surely Elīna Garanča who stole the show as Amneris, progressing convincingly from steely pantomime baddy to unravelled torment by the end. This was there in the voice as well as her acting, with her darkly covered tone early on opening out into a more penetrating sound from Act 2, and a positively wild desperation in her voice by Act 4. 

Soloman Howard (Ramfis) and Ludovic Tézier (Amonasro) both returned to the roles they had delivered in the first run. Howard brought weighty gravitas to the High Priest role, recast here as a military general, his booming calls for Radamès to defend himself in Act 4 particularly chilling, while Tézier’s Amonasro had an equally dark, brutal edge in his ultimate prioritisation of country over his daughter. James Platt delivered an imposing turn as the King of Egypt.  

Angel Blue (Aida) and Elīna Garanča (Amneris)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Stripping away some of the spectacle creates a question of what to do about the dance sequences. One of these is retained, with some effective slow motion combat moves injecting a hint of what war means on the ground, contrasting with pageantry of the massed ranks of seated ceremonially uniformed soldiers, headed by the King and his daughter. Other dances fared less well, with lots of lining up involved, whether that be soldiers folding flags or waitresses laying a table (for no obvious purpose). 

Aida, Act 2 finale
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The Royal Opera Chorus was on fine form, with some stunningly quiet singing from the lower voices, and great power when massed at full throttle. Sir Mark Elder has taken over from Sir Antonio Pappano at the helm this time round, and he exploited Verdi’s rich score to the full, with subtlety from the woodwinds and some surprisingly quiet brass work, as well as showing us the orchestra’s full power and might. 

With only a few allowances for the empty staging in Act 3 and the dance sequences, this production packs a powerful punch, throwing a timely highlight on the shallow pomp of nationalism and state control.