It’s with no little irony that as the Metropolitan Opera brings down the curtain on its epic “Valley of the Kings” Aida after 31 years of sturdy service, a new staging pops up in a corner of Belgium that already looks considerably older. Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera’s production couldn’t be more traditional if it tried. There’s nothing wrong in that – it’s a style the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège clearly favours – and after the ethnic grunge and Night at the Museum concepts elsewhere, it’s refreshing to return to the basics, but that doesn’t excuse the often static direction.

Luca Dall'Amico (Ramfis) © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
Luca Dall'Amico (Ramfis)
© Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

Under the ever-watchful gaze of a giant statue of Horus, Jean-Guy Lecat’s set looks like blackened tomb walls, columns studded with hieroglyphs. These are manually turned by patient stagehands to transport us into Amneris’ chamber. Hydraulics are employed to lift a section of the stage for the Triumphal Scene, the chorus emerging as spectators in a football terrace. But this also means that the entombed Aida and Radamès can sink below ground as the curtain falls. Fernand Ruiz’ costumes fit the traditional approach, with a few elements of fantasy and masked extras as Egyptian gods in the Act 2 procession.

Luciano Montanaro (King of Egypt) © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
Luciano Montanaro (King of Egypt)
© Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

But Mazzonis’ direction amounts to little more than managing entrances and exits, the chorus planted in serried ranks. His only interesting directorial idea is bringing in Amonasro during the Nile Scene prelude so we know the Ethiopian king is in hiding. If Mazzonis could only connect his principals, who are too often parked to bark in a dramatic vacuum. His non-direction is in striking contrast to Michèle Anne de Mey’s choreography. Her dancers – initially in long black skirts – are contemporary in feel, with slinky armography and twists. There are acrobatics, cartwheels and lifts to entertain Amneris, including circus skills involving a giant hoop. It makes for a distinct mismatch with the static direction of the singers, but the prolonged applause for the lengthy ballet following the Grand March indicates an appetite for something more adventurous.

There are a plethora of Italian conductors touring the world’s houses conducting Italian opera, but Speranza Scappucci can rub shoulders with the best of them. Music director since last season, she’s a firecracker in Verdi, having impressed me here two years ago in Jérusalem. She applies plenty of rubato but hers is an inherently dramatic approach, driving the drama from the pit. The string tone in this small pit can sound thin at times, but there was some distinguished woodwind playing, especially the sinuous oboe solo in “O patria mia”.

Nino Surguladze (Amneris) © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
Nino Surguladze (Amneris)
© Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

Liège’s casting is very respectable. The plum was Nino Surguladze’s vampish Amneris, costumed like Angelina Jolie in Maleficent. She swallows a few consonants – there’s the occasional missing vowel too – but her ripe mezzo sounds gorgeously lush in this small house and she dominated her every scene. After the priests have pronounced Radamès’ sentence, Surguladze snatches the cobra-headed sceptre from Ramfis to deliver her curse, naughitly pausing for a massive breath between “anatema” and “su voi” so she can bring the house down.

Luca Dall'Amico sings a solid Ramfis and Belgian baritone Lionel Lhote displays virile tone as Amonasro, with beautifully sensitive phrasing in “Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente”. And Tineke Van Ingelgem – whom I last heard singing the title role of Medée in Rouen – was luxurious casting as the off-stage priestess.

Elaine Alvarez (Aida) © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
Elaine Alvarez (Aida)
© Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

As Aida, Elaine Alvarez has a really interesting voice. Her lower register has a vinegary tinge, not unlike Kiri te Kanawa’s, and the top can sound pushed and squally, but there’s dramatic distinction in her vocal delivery. I’m afraid Marcello Giordani is something of a spent force as Radamès, flat and rasping in a disappointing “Celsete Aida” – delivered directly to his beloved – snatching at high notes. The originally scheduled Gianluca Terranova withdrew just before rehearsals started, so Giordani was a reliable, if unexciting, replacement. And pity the tenor asked to deliver the line “Aida, ove sei tu?” just as his tomb has risen through the stage floor and she’s become visible right behind him. It’s a good job the Belgians don’t do panto.

***11