Verdi is always a delicious prospect at La Scala, where the hyper-spectacle of Franco Zeffirelli's Aida in recent years has ruled the roost. This year, Zeffirelli has lost out, and unceremoniously so as the director would have it in the national press, to Peter Stein's coolly restrained production, which fattens up the love story at the expense of pomp. We might have been without the silver service of Zeffirelli tonight, but a combination of great playing and luxury singing made for creamy fare nonetheless: a Milanese risotto with a double helping of mascarpone. The switch went down a treat, and Stein's formula is a keeper.

Kristin Lewis (Aida) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Kristin Lewis (Aida)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

This production mixes the futuristic with a strong dose of orientalism. Priests in sci-fi skull caps rub shoulders with luxuriant priestesses. Sets comprise geometric shapes clad in vivid colours. A golden sphere glares against black for The Temple of Vulcan, whilst a gilt rectangle sits in the deep ultramarine of Amneris' chamber. Particularly striking was the black on white cross section of an angular subterranean passage, where Amneris grieved in red at the frustum entrance to The Temple of Justice. Without recourse to exotic animals, the "Triumphal March" achieved full impact through sheer numbers, with celebrators on grandstands overlooking flag-waving marchers on a stage flanked with antiphonal trumpets.

“In Verdi Veritas”, writes Stein in the programme notes. On an uncluttered stage, the characters' relationships could sparkle atop a lucid mesh of Verdian interplay. Matti Salminen, a one-time brown bear of a Finnish bass, has by now lost some of his bite, which if anything lent credence to the elderly High Priest who influences Carlo Colombara's King with ease. Amneris reveals nothing less than deep enamour with her lover Radamès, prising with guile to unearth Aida's devotion to the captain. Kristin Lewis delivered many of her ebbing and flowing lines curled on the ground; hers was an irresistibly tender Aida utterly trampled on twin flanks by Amneris and her father Amonasro (sung here by the steely George Gagnidze). “O patria mia” was time-stopping, with Lewis weaving silken knots that focused to a gossamer thread.

Kristin Lewis (Aida) and Fabio Sartori (Radamès) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Kristin Lewis (Aida) and Fabio Sartori (Radamès)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
 

Zubin Mehta conducted with Titan authority in an approach that would have felt well-suited to a Beethoven symphony. Objective and precise with a tight rein on tempi, the orchestra's Verdian resources shone under his stare: gleaming violins and warm lower instruments poised in a luminous whole, licking into shape when the drama bubbled. Often blistering, but never out of control, the pressure ratcheted in Radamès' discovery and capture in Act III, before exploding in a barrage of blows on “Sacerdote, io resto a te” that left us winded. Having been exposed to such G-forces, we were grateful for the the long scene changes, providing a moment to regain composure.

For every instant of honeyed introspection, there was another of spicy vigour. Full pelt chorus and blazing orchestra pinned us to our seats for Radamès' consecration, yet under Mehta's superintendence we never struggled to hear the soloists. When I last heard the stupendous Fabio Sartori in the role of Radamès at Verona's vast Arena, he had impressed with his expressivity and vocal brawn. Now, bottled within the confines of a theatre, he shot through the passaggio like a volcanic eruption. Right and true, this is the sort of singing that makes the heart leap.

Anita Rachvelishvili (Amneris) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Anita Rachvelishvili (Amneris)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Young mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili was the standout in the role of Amneris. Her voice is rich, velvety, dripping with harmonics, with a steely edge and a capacious bottom. There was sophistication in her rolling, even legato, and she had the vocal heft to made the ears ring to her clarion call “Ritorna vincitor!”. This was a classically dramatic performance, in which she strode regally in fiery altercations and collapsed and writhed between anguished outbursts for Radamès' death sentence. Rachvelishvili buckled again – at the curtain call – when she was met with a delirious surge of applause that rivalled the orchestra's sturdiest passages. Her return to La Scala as Carmen next month is a tantalising prospect. 

After such rich provisions, there was room for something sweet. Radamès and Aida wove caressing lines within their tomb, as Amneris wept above on the golden rock that enclosed them. With elegant sets and superlative musicianship, Verdi came to life in a house where he is revered most. We left with full stomachs and spinning heads. This musical feast will have us licking our lips for some time yet.