A “non-pharaonic” Aida may seem a contradiction in terms: no temples and tombs, no papier-mâché pyramids, let alone elephants and parades. In short, none of the things that have always been associated with Aida.

Nonetheless, I am not a super-traditionalist opera lover, so I was prepared to appreciate the innovative ideas and minimalist staging by Franco Dragone, a director who plays a significant role in producing the brilliant performances of the Cirque du Soleil.

Dragone moved the traditional Aida story to an unconventional context: everything had to appear unexpected and disconcerting. The director’s starting idea was to “dry” the staging as much as possible, scrubbing off all the bombast that has been accompanying performances of this work for almost one and a half centuries.

Unfortunately, the eccentricities of this production led to a poor-quality outcome. Some stage directions were ends in themselves, and Dragone, apparently aiming to épater le bourgeois, did not give up any idea, not even those which proved redundant or wearisome.

The costumes and makeup gave everything in a “post-apocalyptic” dimension, also contributed to by means of hundreds of hanging ropes, while columns and marble statues incongruously overhung the stage, upside-down.

The “little Moorish slaves” dancing at the beginning of the second act were replaced with dancers in classical ballet tutus and tights. They also performed in a triumphal march which was not only unconventional: simply, it didn’t exist.

A good dramatic invention was the constant presence on stage of unidentified mute characters (the “invisible”), who acted as frightened witnesses to the events. But there was a sense of unresolvedness throughout.

My impression of this production was much more positive as far as the singing and conducting were concerned. Nicola Luisotti in the pit conducted an excellent Orchestra of San Carlo: he chose a low-profile approach, to avoid overloading a show already stressed by the director’s bizarreness. The conductor followed Karajan’s lesson, lessening as far as possible the martial and triumphalistic aspect of a piece that tradition has handed down as martial and triumphalistic par excellence.

His was a straightforward interpretation which let the music speak for itself, equally focused on the dramatic and the lyrical sides, with an evident attention to the preparation of the singers. And the chorus did a good job, too, directed by Salvatore Caputo.

The singers’ cast was almost completely different from the one which premièred two days earlier, and which had had quite a controversial reception mainly because of the direction of Dragone.

With this second cast, things went much better. Kristin Lewis in the title role at first appeared intimidated, maybe because of the not-so-warm welcome the first cast had received, but nonetheless her “Ritorna vincitor” was of a good standard. Then, having seen that the public was well inclined, she seemed much more confident and in control of her potential when singing “O cieli azzurri” and the duets with Radamès in the third and fourth acts. She is certainly not a dramatic soprano in the classic sense, and although she has a soft vocal style and also a good sense of drama, perhaps her voice lacks the necessary breadth of register that allows her to swell to a dramatic peak without strain.

Tenor Stuart Neill acted convincingly as Radamès, apart from some slight initial uncertainties in intonation. Neill proved more at ease in the scenes that require a strong interpretation than in the lyrical moments.

The mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi played the role of Amneris with determination, even if she had difficulties in the low register at times. Her fourth act was good overall: she had the right voice to convincingly articulate the desperation of the woman, bringing out the more dramatic side of the character. Dario Russo was quite underwhelming as the King of Egypt: his voice lacked the necessary gravity and darkness required for the role, and his stage movements were very approximate.

The two stand-outs were Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Ramfis and Claudio Sgura’s Amonasro. Their singing and acting work was wonderful, and it is always a real treat for opera lovers to hear them. The basso was, as always, a certainty. With his vocal and interpretative composure, he drew a charismatic Ramfis, mastering the scene with his authoritative presence. As for Sgura, his voice is full and intense with strong intonation. Above all, he has a solid stage presence. When he and Furlanetto were on stage, the dramatic tension always reached a peak.

The audience warmly applauded everyone, and especially Nicola Luisotti, who is doing a good job of restoring a Neapolitan opera tradition which has been at risk over the years.