In tonight's “Triumphal March”, two cranes in the centre of the stage construct a giant, reflective diamond as a symbol with multiple possible references. In one moment it could refer to Ra, the god of light, the growing power of the protagonist Radamès and the spirit of technological adventure that brought into being Egypt's Suez Canal, with which this opera is, rightly or wrongly, often associated. But there is also a sense of this production referencing its own history, and we are reminded of the vast central pyramid that has come to epitomise legendary performances of Aida at the Arena di Verona in years gone by.

Triumphal March from Act II of <i>Aida</i> © Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona
Triumphal March from Act II of Aida
© Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona

This production contains a whole tapestry of familiar imagery that closely follows Verdi's stage directions whilst interpreting them creatively. The result is a modern rendering, with soldiers in orange jumpsuits and the protagonists donning metallic, light-reflecting garb, which nevertheless feels rooted in tradition. Aida at The Arena is a special experience where music and space combine to form the greatest of spectacles, in a space where a tradition of spectacle stretches back 2000 years to to the Flavian emperors. The much vaunted Zeffirelli production and last year's revival of the 1913 production (which also features later in this year's festival) may be tough acts to follow, but this production by Catalan collective La Fura dels Baus builds on the triumphs of the earlier versions whilst adding extra spice in an awe-inspiring interpretation.

It is immediately striking how the stagework moulds and morphs to meet the demands of Verdi's ever changeable drama. An uncluttered setting for the opening draws us into the inner worlds of the protagonists, but when The King enters to announce war against the Ethiopian army, the stage is flooded with ministers, priests and captains to a fire and brimstone brass war rally from the orchestra: an incredible spectacle with chorus singing that leaves you winded. Then the stage drains again for Aida's self-scourging laments, and inflated sand dunes emerge in the background to mark her emotional isolation.

Fabio Sartori (Radamès) and Raymond Aceto (Ramfis) © Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona
Fabio Sartori (Radamès) and Raymond Aceto (Ramfis)
© Ennevi | Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona

A pleasing contradiction at The Arena is that for all of its size and grandeur, performances here produce a palpable intimacy in a venue where there is no physical void between the performers and audience. This feature is harnessed by La Fura dels Baus, who use techniques to draw in the audience and make us feel part of an experiential whole. Radamès is inaugurated as high-commander of the Egyptian army in the Temple of Vulcan amongst the priestess's sinuous incantations and an acrobat on high who makes firefly patterns with a glowing orb (the libretto's specified "mysterious light from above"). As Verdi's score shifts from reverential to resplendent, rows of hooded priests with more glowing orbs emerge from every opening of the amphitheatre before processing with orderly solemnity towards the stage. This scene draws an astonished gaze out into the audience, and then back to Radamès whose inauguration unfolds with newfound focus and weight.

In and amongst the intimate beauty and dramatic intensity, the opera's divertissements were treated with a whacky sense of fun that tickled and transfixed. The Dance of the Moorish Slaves featured a young entourage who sit in front of a scrim displaying the amusing antics of silhouetted figures to the delight of the audience proper. The bizarrely satirical Triumphal March that followed seemed to pay homage to the over-egged pomposity we have become accustomed to in this section of the opera, and notaries were paraded on winged thrones atop mobile staircases, chained slaves buckled under heavy lashings and beetle headed soldiers drove around on bumper cars. Large mechanical camels and elephants absorbed much of the attention with plodding limbs that moved with the mesmerising realism.

Hue He (Aida) and Violeta Urmana (Amneris) © Ennevi |Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona
Hue He (Aida) and Violeta Urmana (Amneris)
© Ennevi |Courtesy of Fondazione Arena di Verona

The cast's performance was of a high quality, and this was well-demonstrated in the visually and musically stunning Nile scene. To the orchestra's delicate evocation of the Nile, Amneris and Ramfis glided over the flooded stage in a boat amongst peacock-feathered reeds and wafting prayers from the hidden chorus. Violeta Urmana had the right weight of sound to portray the stern yet vulnerable Amneris, whilst Raymond Aceto's noble voice lent Ramfis real gravitas. The stage gave way to the irresistible singing of Hui He's Aida and Fabio Sartori's Radamès in “Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti”, and He was totally convincing in these moments of exotic seduction, as she was throughout the entirety of a role that she has performed on this stage a number of times. Sartori, on the other hand, pulled off the admirable feat of growing into his singing throughout the performance, and his voice in the closing aria “La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse” rebounded around the amphitheatre without a hint of tiredness.

More strong performances came from Sergej Artamonov's King, Gennady Vashchenko's Amonasro and the tireless conductor Julian Kovatchev, who produced a firm orchestral base with intelligent dramatic phrasing. We were able to enjoy the full richness of Verdi's score in an acoustic that encourages careful listening but is nevertheless generous in its clarity.

La Fura dels Baus' production balances the familiar with modern detail in a clever staging that packs a real punch. The Arena enjoyed its centennial edition last year, and one wonders whether this might be the production that they celebrate the next time around.

*****