It was Ildikó Komlósi’s show. The acclaimed dramatic mezzo-soprano commanded the stage with absolute authority in a mesmerizing performance that deserves the title more than her Nubian slave rival. We could feel her seething, jealous heart as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida all the way to the last row of the Erkel Theatre, the second house of the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest.

Act II <i>Aida</i> © Zsófia Pályi
Act II Aida
© Zsófia Pályi

Another reason János Mohácsi's production should be renamed Amneris is that Radostina Nikolaeva' Aida is the weak link in the chain; Melinda Heiter, in the tiny role of High Priestess, possessed far more tonal allure and musical precision. Although she had moments of intimate sincerity, Nikolaeva’s sluggish singing, consistently behind the beat, was disappointing. A lack of legato line, unwieldy vocal technique, and acting with her hands instead of letting emotion dictate organic movement were the unfortunate liabilities in her performance.

Now in her mid-50s, Komlósi’s ample voice, although showing some signs of age in the mid-range, blows the roof off with not only her dramatic presence but her vocal power which, especially in the extreme high and low zones, is still as potent and focused as ever. Every moment she spent on stage in this production, even when she wasn’t singing, was riveting. She prowled the stage like a hungry jaguar in slow motion, and every moment of her character’s thinking process was apparent, whether vocalised or not. Her many arias and duets in Act III and IV (after Radamès’ rejection of her as a potential bride) in which she expresses rage and vengeance were completely spine-chilling. Many divas opt for a "park and bark" approach to this bread-and-butter role. Komlósi sings it like it’s the first time: full of energy and anticipation, then dashed hopes and bitter hatred.

Stuart Neill (Radamès) and Ildikó Komlósi (Amneris) © Zsófia Pályi
Stuart Neill (Radamès) and Ildikó Komlósi (Amneris)
© Zsófia Pályi

Stuart Neill also blew the roof off, but more from the sheer stamina required for Radamès’ heroic vocalism rather than from a character standpoint. Generally, his comfort level in the top section of his voice kept renewing itself with more and more vigour (and splendid tone) by the fourth act. As Amonasro, Mihály Kálmándy impressed as an artful singing actor, with ringing high notes and heartfelt drama. Both András Palerdi and István Kovács, as High Priest Ramfis and the King of Egypt respectively, wielded their voluminous bass-baritones with stately heft.

Mohácsi used dance choreography by Johanna Bodor and costumes by Kriszta Remete, who took inspiration from design imperatives seen on ancient artefacts and papyrus drawings. Zsolt Khell’s set design uses black and gold as dominant colours throughout, and the final act's wall construction featured a museum-sized installation of golden hieroglyphs on a black background. Since black was the omnipresent operative colour, whatever was gold really gleamed. The several blazing fire torches erected against the black wall added spectacle and splendour.

The ballet troupe was integrated with young gymnasts who more resembled youths of Olympic Games and who provided an entertaining and competitive spirit to the ballet music. The female dancers' choreography frequently formed a small circle in the middle of the stage, using stylized Pharaonic positions with arms and hands and stepping with ritualistic devotion. All these factors produced a fashionably stylized vision of ancient Egypt, with plenty of glittering grandeur which was most effective in the Temple of Isis as well giving eclát to the Triumphal March. (The many ubiquitous brass players in this production excelled offstage, onstage, and in the pit.)

Act II ballet © Zsófia Pályi
Act II ballet
© Zsófia Pályi

However, the large chorus, directed by Kálmán Strausz, was very statically staged in unmoving blocks, as if they were a forest of statues. The women of the chorus sounded radiant, strong, and beautifully blended, while the men were considerably less so.

During the Prelude, Mohácsi’s decision to add anachronistic, silent scenes featuring photographers who shot photos of bloody battles and other actions with equipment like modern cameras and white umbrellas was confusing. Since the operatic content was definitely set in an ancient period, a “prologue” that resembled a film set’s activities felt like an an odd attempt to dial down the emotional content.

All things considered, this Aida (or Amneris, if you will) is a winner for exceptionally strong performances by Komlósi, Neill, and the three bass-baritones. If only Nikolaeva had been in the same league, it would have been a do-not-miss team.