Royal Albert Hall, London
Aida was premiered in Cairo in 1871, and this arena staging begins with extras playing archaeologists on a dig. During the rest of Stephen Medcalf's production, conducted by Andrew Greenwood, they are pared down to a single figure representing Amelia Edwards (played by Charlotte Medcalf), an eminent Victorian who devoted herself to the preservation of Egypt's ancient monuments.
Her presence may be an intrusion on Verdi's tale, a love story set against the background of Egypt's war against Ethiopia, but it is well handled. In other respects, this is a broadly traditional staging, retaining the loosely defined original period while delivering the narrative with keen intelligence. In what can be a difficult space for individual singers to handle, Medcalf's clarity allows the conflicts of interest burning within and between the central characters to register with unusual heat.
The Royal Albert Hall is also a tricky space for a designer, but Isabella Bywater achieves an unbroken sequence of effective stage pictures. Projections on vast screens extend the audience's vision to take in wider perspectives. The masterstroke is to beef up the impact of the triumph scene – opera's most famous victory parade – with reflected images tripling the already substantial personnel representing the Egyptian army, people and priestly ruling class, together with their maltreated Ethiopian prisoners.
Aida doesn't work without real spectacle at this point, but it also needs high-octane singing throughout. In the title role, Indra Thomas (pictured) is imposing and often exciting, if uneven. Tiziana Carraro's Amneris mines the contralto depths of her cast-iron mezzo when she takes on the hateful priests in the judgment scene. Marc Heller's Radames may be dramatically inhibited, but his ringing high notes are genuinely heroic. David Kempster makes a terrifyingly ruthless Amonasro, while Greenwood's authoritative interpretation consistently hits the spot.
* In pictures: backstage during final rehearsals of Aida at the Royal Albert Hall
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