Instead of posters for English National Opera's new staging of Aida depicting a steep shaft of light over a lone soprano, they could easily have screamed Akhnaten II: Return of the Tomb Raider. Phelim McDermott envisages it as a sister production to his team's mesmeric award-winning production of Philip Glass' Akhnaten of two seasons ago. But would the hypnotic juggling and glacial choreography work for Giuseppe Verdi's Nile epic?

Latonia Moore (Aida) © Tristram Kenton
Latonia Moore (Aida)
© Tristram Kenton

McDermott's Aida, a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève, is leagues away from the Zandra Rhodes bling which framed ENO's previous effort. Tom Pye's sets have a monolithic feel, dominated by a huge prism standing proud; drawn from part of a hieroglyph, its triangular form finds echoes in the way the drop curtain opens and closes. Bruno Poet's lighting shrouds Memphis in mists, lending a dark, atmospheric feel to the early acts where a strong sense of ceremony and ritual is created, albeit including static choral direction. Much of the movement and spectacle comes via Basil Twist's silk effects, from a billowing purple column to red banners splayed around Eleanor Dennis' lustrous priestess like rays of the sun in the Temple of Vulcan. Act 4's tomb is beautifully cut away, even if a lot of sunlight still manages to seep through to illuminate Radamès and Aida's dying breaths.

Cast and members of Mimbre © Tristram Kenton
Cast and members of Mimbre
© Tristram Kenton

Kevin Pollard's extrovert costume designs clearly echo those in Akhnaten, modern military chic rubbing shoulders with timeless voluminous robes; Michelle DeYoung's viperous Amneris was cocooned in white like a chrysalis at one stage. Headdresses adorned with horns and antlers are worn with evening dress for Act 2, though it's the leopard-skin fez which should clearly be adopted as this year's must-have fashion accessory. The female-led acrobatic team Mimbre entertains Amneris with a silken rhythmic gymnastic display and balance atop each other to form a guard of honour for Radamès' return. McDermott mutes the usual pomp of the Triumphal Scene, coffins draped with flags adding poignancy as the bodies of soldiers are returned to their families.

Michelle DeYoung (Amneris) © Tristram Kenton
Michelle DeYoung (Amneris)
© Tristram Kenton

Leading a strong cast is American soprano Latonia Moore, last heard in London six years ago – also as Aida – at Covent Garden. She looked every inch the African princess, but adorned with blue hair and splashes of tribal face paint. With golden top notes and plush, velvety colouring to her lower register, Moore shaped a commanding “Ritorna vincitor!”. A snatched top C barely detracted from a tender “O patria mia” in Act 3. Her Radamès was ENO stalwart Gwyn Hughes Jones in vibrant voice. “Celeste Aida” was sung ardently with a lovely diminuendo at the end, while his tone in the tomb was beautifully sweet.

Towering over Moore's Aida, DeYoung – making her ENO debut – took time to settle on opening night, sounding cloudy early on, with some weird English vowels. However, she hit form by the Judgement Scene, her mezzo opening up impressively, delivering a powerful curse, even if it didn't quite rattle the Coliseum's foundations. There was a solid UK debut for South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, who displayed firm upper notes in the Nile Scene. Robert Winslade Anderson's Ramfis was a little too soft-grained for the implacable priest, but Matthew Best, looking disturbingly like Bill Nighy, white coat draped casually over the shoulders of his white suit, sang strongly as Egypt's king.

Musa Ngqungwana (Amonasro) and Latonia Moore (Aida) © Tristram Kenton
Musa Ngqungwana (Amonasro) and Latonia Moore (Aida)
© Tristram Kenton

Keri-Lynn Wilson conducted a lively account of Verdi's score; a few slips between orchestra and ENO's lusty chorus will doubtless be ironed out. There were excellent on-stage trumpets in the Triumphal March, matched for pageantry and grandeur from the pit, while Claire Wickes' perfumed flute solo evocatively set up the Nile Scene. Verdi's music is, of course, often a good deal more animated than Glass' minimalist noodling. Where McDermott slowed the action in Akhnaten to match the music's trance-like torpor, here he sometimes needed to invigorate his singers more, to find a more dramatic pulse with less reliance on “park and bark”. Nevertheless, this credible new production is a considerable success with another fine cast to take over the run at the end of October.