Every civilized nation should have its own opera house. At least, that was what the playboy Khedive, Isma’il Pasha, must have thought in approaching Verdi in 1869. Egypt, now that it had Suez, must count for itself. And that is how Aida entered the repertoire. This is Verdi’s mythical and majestic Egypt, unashamedly full of the tropes of ‘Orientalism’, not that this at all injured it in Egyptian eyes. Its 1871 Cairo première was a notable success.

Francesca Zambello’s engaging Aida opened the season here for Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center last night. The best wine didn’t come first though. The opera is admittedly on the staid side, and there is a lack of what one might call ‘forward propulsion’. There is a great deal of standing-and-invoking throughout – the gods, the king, anyone in power over anyone else – and this seems to be so wrapped up in what Verdi felt was the essential (and timeless) Egyptian character that it certainly feels dated, and as a result, may drag in performance. But once the production got into its stride, livelier dynamics emerged.

Tamara Wilson interpreted Aida as a forlorn, put-upon creature at first, with little hint of her underlying regal status, but what a lovely voice, fluent and full at the higher registers. Her quieter passages did not lose any of the sweetness of tone nor resonance.

Yonghoon Lee’s Radamès was in full voice, resonant and rich, and luxuriating in all those long Italian vowels. I thought his acting at the start a little stiff and his passion for Aida hidden to the point of invisibility, but displacement and torture helped him greatly, and he attended death with real feeling.

Ekaterina Semenchuk, the third side of the love triangle, very much came into her own after a quiet start. She is surely the most interesting character in terms of how her role develops over the course of the opera; while Aida and Rademès merely have to love each other and die, she has to face the moral and emotional complexity of sending the man she loves to his death, with no good resulting to herself. Semenchuk was a powerfully malicious presence at first, and by the end, a tragic one. In the scene of Rademès’ torture, long black strips of fabric (a kind of hieroglyph in itself) descended, and try as she might to break through them and undo the harm she had wrecked, she could not; her vocal interjections were pure pain. It was a menacing mise-en-scène. And there she was at the end, cheating the lovers of their final operatic solitude, ever the ambivalent third in their relationship.

Zambello's staging – already seen in San Francisco – mixes allusions to the antique and the contemporary, as if to underline that the conflict between duty and desire is perennial. Aida does not leave one with huge amounts of scope for pushing the boundaries, but still the most successful aspect of this syncretic production was the overall concept design by RETNA. Marquis Duriel Lewis is a Los Angeles-based graffiti artist and this, his first opera commission, is a triumphant marriage of the Egyptian theme of the work and his deft usage of hieroglyphics. There was an invitation to reflect upon the (il)legibility of the codes of warring societies, an invitation particularly tangible in the triumphal entry of the hero Rademès within the main blood-red hieroglyphic prop: the subsuming of the masculine ideal by violence perhaps. Does his victory mean triumph? And for whom? There followed the powerful spectacle of the plea for clemency by the prisoners of war. Vocal clamor – with Aida’s glorious high notes heard over all – was attended and amplified by the clamor of visual symbols and changing lighting (Mark McCullough), the whole a potent symbol of the incompatible claims of strict justice and mercy.

In a work heavily insistent on ritual, the injection of ritual dancing, choreographed by Jessica Lang, was fitting. It was also an antidote to the somewhat static nature of the opera, to its military squareness and the invocatory stillness of so many of the passages. Costumes, however, were a little confusing. While it was roughly easy to get that women and religious men were being represented as timeless entities (in classical robes) and men as contingent (in modern military khaki), why the fluorescent 1960s-style colouring for the women’s celebratory gowns? But day-glo gowns aside, the female chorus was luminous and clear as a bell. The orchestra, under the baton of Evan Rogister, was warm and subtle in its dynamic shadings.  

The Khedive, had he been present, would have found a lot to like, and presumably would have understood those omnipresent hieroglyphics. He may rather have approved of day-glo too.