In his first year as Artistic Director of the Salzburg Festival, the progressive Markus Hinterhäuser has filled the programme with modern repertoire. But Salzburg remains committed to presenting starrily-cast Italian opera, as this new production of Aida from Iranian-American visual artist Shirin Neshat demonstrates. It saw Anna Netrebko debut as Aida, Francesco Meli debut as Radamès and Luca Salsi return to the role of Amonasro. In case that wasn't enough, Riccardo Muti was also drafted in to conduct what will be his only operatic engagement of 2017.

Anna Netrebko (Aida) © Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus
Anna Netrebko (Aida)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

It certainly wasn't enough for a number of critics. By the time I caught the second performance of the production it had already come under heavy fire. Yet I found little to complain about as far as the music was concerned. Muti's reading of the score is extraordinary, both for its sophistication and originality, and this will surely go down in the annals as a historically significant interpretation. The conductor is ever the micro-manager, but so fluid is his treatment of melody, and so attentive is the Vienna Philharmonic to his gestures that the playing unravels with a sense of freedom.

Here, Verdi's instrumental writing itself becomes the spectacle. In the Triumphal March, contrasting blocks of sound were alternated with hypnotic circularity, and the passage was carefully graded to give the climax especial impact. When, in the final passages, Verdi pulls out all of the stops, the orchestra flexed its muscles without losing balance or cohesion. Indeed, what made this performance so distinctive was its symphonic rather than operatic character. The introduction to the Nile scene was no aural backdrop to onstage spectacle – there was rarely much onstage spectacle in this production – but a carefully-crafted masterpiece to be savoured.

Francesco Meli (Radamès), Dmitry Belosselskiy (Ramfis) and Chorus © Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus
Francesco Meli (Radamès), Dmitry Belosselskiy (Ramfis) and Chorus
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

Many Aidas might have struggled to stand out against such playing, but luckily our Aida was Anna Netrebko. She was a captivating personality and a volcano of rage, who ripped around the stage in "Ritorna vincitor", where her opening cry was delivered with spinto clout, and she eschewed nostalgia for crushing torment in "Oh patria mia", spinning gossamer top notes before rippling into her bronzed lower range. Netrebko has taken true command of this role at the first attempt.

Meli has been outshone by Netrebko in the past, but here he was her worthy counterpart. His high-octane singing remains open and whitish above the passaggio – it reminds you of Giuseppe Di Stefano, and makes you wonder for how long it will hold out in the long term – but also sounds more complex in colour than ever. The moment he rose to a filament-thin pianissimo in "Celeste Aida" – a daring move at such an early point in the opera, yet one that paid off – suggested that Meli is searching for greater nuance in his interpretations. And he is settling as an actor too. While Meli's performances in more dramatic passages have been well-intentioned but stiff in the past, here they had a natural expressivity.

Anna Netrebko (Aida) and Luca Salsi (Amonasro) © Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus
Anna Netrebko (Aida) and Luca Salsi (Amonasro)
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

Luca Salsi provided a technical masterclass in his arioso introduction, supporting his burnished voice to the full and effortlessly turning into a creamy passaggio. Dmitry Belosselskiy boomed mightily as Ramfis, and Ekaterina Semenchuk's Amneris made a strong impression as Amneris.

Benedetta Torre (Priestess) and Chorus © Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus
Benedetta Torre (Priestess) and Chorus
© Salzburger Festspiele | Monika Rittershaus

But Shirin Neshat's embarrassing non-production was poor enough to bring the overall standard down a notch. The New York-based Iranian video artist, who has said that she personally identifies with Aida's plight, provides an open encasement split in two, which functions as the tomb, Temple of Justice and Gate of Thebes, and rotates on a revolving stage to reveal projections of divided communities. The stereotypes of Muslims, Jews and Christians that Neshat applies to the chorus are unfortunately risible. This is a performance that left the singers largely to their own devices. Luckily, they were able to look after themselves.