Attendees of last night's Aida may have been concerned that they would be seeing a stand-in soprano, with the Ukranian Liudmyla Monastyrska making her Covent Garden debut. They needn't have worried. Monastyrska gave a world class performance with great vocal control and huge power. Her cry of Ritorna vincitor!, enjoining the hero Radamès to return victorious, nearly blew the roof off the Royal Opera House - and I can say this safely, since I was fairly close to the roof in an amphitheatre seat. It's the loudest voice I've ever heard that high up, delivered with barely a hint of shrillness.

© Bill Cooper, The Royal Opera, March 2011
© Bill Cooper, The Royal Opera, March 2011

Musically, it was a curiously old-school evening, relying on six main performers who sang their hearts out. While no-one else quite matched Monastyrska's power levels, the other five all came close, and it was glorious to hear singing at that level with good diction and real Verdian feel for melody. Carlo Ventre was particularly impressive as Radamès, with every word audible in true heroic tone. Conductor Daniele Rustioni exerted fine control over the orchestral dynamics: when the focus was on individual singers, the orchestra played a delicate supporting role; in the massive ensemble pieces and military marches, they delivered real punch.

David McVicar's 2010 production obviously found favour, getting an immediate revival with a long run of 11 performances. Judging from my neighbours in the audience, the staging won't be to everyone's taste, but it worked for me. Moritz Junge's costumes pull off the difficult trick of being exotic and opulent without looking like they were lifted from the Egyptian room at the British Museum, and Jean-Marc Puissant's abstract sets are subtle, giving lots of texture and details of colour without getting into your face with a ton of clutter. The main controversy will come from the Grand March and ballet scenes. Aida is frequently a good excuse to have lots of topless slave girls, and this production is no exception, but the titillation turns to horror when the said slave girls disembowel their (human) sacrificial victims and smear Radamès with the blood. A powerful depiction of the horrors of ancient religions, or mindlessly gratuitous violence, depending on your point of view. The ballet sequence was suitably spectacular, augmented by the corpses of the sacrificial victims hanging from the ceiling, and in a style that owed more to Japanese martial arts than to anything we would think of as Egyptian (not, in all honesty, that much is known about ancient Egyptian dance rituals).

Aida is very much in the style of French Grand Opera, and the big set pieces are the features of Aida that have most caught the popular imagination. This is richly ironic since, according to Christopher Wintle's fascinating programme notes, Verdi was strongly resistant to the idea of doing a Paris-style opera, and was coaxed into doing Aida by the French librettist Camille du Locle. Verdi's fee of 150,000 francs undoubtedly helped to soften his resistance, but what particularly interested him was a number of the emotional situations in the opera. The most poignant is when Aida makes the decision to betray Radamès, impossibly torn between her love for him and her father Amonasro's declaration that her alternative is to be responsible for the slaughter of her mother and the whole Ethiopian people. Also extremely powerful is the split-screen scene in which Radamès refuses to answer the allegations against him, while the princess Amneris is consumed with despair at having caused his imminent condemnation to death.

These scenes worked wonderfully, with the emotions and tensions greatly enhanced both by the singing and the quality of the direction. It was a textbook lesson in how a director can inject energy and interest into a scene in which the starting material is one or two characters singing to the audience about the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Many productions of Aida are hackneyed and overblown, and it was really refreshing to hear the music sung with such clarity and authority, with the story and tragic dilemmas coming through credibly. Even for those who disliked the staging, it was a splendid night of Verdian singing.

*****