Aida, Royal Opera House, London
Elegy for Young Lovers, Young Vic, London
I Went to the House But Did Not Enter, Barbican Hall, London

Covent Garden's new 'Aida' is an orgy of mad make-up, bare breasts and swinging corpses...with not a pyramid in sight

Anything but Ancient Egypt was the brief, and anything but Ancient Egypt was what we got. Aztec, Samurai and Janissary motifs collide in David McVicar's Aida, along with the robes, hairpieces, nail-extensions and maquillage of a variety of aliens from Star Trek.

Few will regret the decommissioning of Robert Wilson's static, cobalt-blue Noh-inspired production. But its replacement is less likely to be remembered for Moritz Junge's costumes than for their near-absence in the orgiastic excesses of the Triumphal March. Think breasts. Think blood. Think human sacrifice. Think Verdi in the style of Mel Gibson.

Eschewing pyramids and elephants, McVicar presents a society bloated on ritual sacrifice. The oil-blackened skies and blistered metal panels of Jean-Marc Puissant's sets indicate a post-apocalyptic setting, though the cruelty is pre-industrial. Flayed corpses swing from the ceiling of the Temple of Vulcan, where a dozen bare-breasted nymphs truss, caress and eviscerate a dozen loin-clothed youths in celebration of the return of Radames (Marcelo Alvarez). Pale and desiccated, borne on a slender golden sedan and followed by a gilded mute on a leash, the King (Robert Lloyd) is sick. His daughter Amneris (Marianne Cornetti) seems bored by the stylised carnality, glutted. But so might you be if the principal design feature of your private apartment was a slowly rotating Lazy Susan of lustful lesbian gymnasts.

Should we be shocked? No. Aside from the woodwind arabesques and the Moorish flickers of the Hymn to Isis (sung beautifully by Elisabeth Meister), Verdi's score rarely strays south of Sicily. But regardless of whether you clothe your cast in kohl and sandals or send them in buck naked, the opera is a love-triangle, its first and last notes as faint as the whisper of air in the vault where Radames and Aida (Micaela Carosi) are immured. A change of lighting is not enough to suggest this rapturous acquiescence to death, and so much energy has been expended on the pageantry of violence that the central relationships are diminished.

Happy in his metallic corset, Alvarez delivers "Celeste Aida" at a burnished forte, cooling down to a moonlit croon in the final duet. Carosi is arresting at full tilt, though her intonation soon falters. Giacomo Prestia (Ramfis) and Lloyd convey the absolute corruption of their society, though the finest performance comes from Cornetti, who projects a vulnerability in her singing that her sci-fi wig and troupe of oversexed attendants militate against. Orchestrally, the performance is as subtle as McVicar's production is not: impetuous, urgent and sensual under conductor Nicola Luisotti, whose sole error of judgement is to unleash the brass in Amonasro's (Marco Vratogna) Act III tirade.

Fiona Shaw's English National Opera production of Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic offers a more restrained, northern brand of cruelty. Hans Werner Henze's 1961 opera is atypically arch, its libretto (by WH Auden and Chester Kallman) is a self-lacerating, self-aggrandising conceit on the destructive egotism of artists.

In a guest house on an Alpine glacier, the monstrous poet Gregor Mittenhofer (Steven Page) throws his boiled eggs at the staff, plays hide-and-seek with his teddy bear, bullies his doctor (William Robert Allenby) and assistant (Lucy Schaufer), and takes dictation from the coloratura ravings of permanent resident Frau Mack (Jennifer Rhys-Davies), whose husband took a stroll and returned, 40 years later, as a novelty ice-cube. Seemingly magnanimous when his young mistress (Kate Valentine) falls in love with the doctor's son (Robert Murray), Mittenhofer engineers a replay of Herr Mack's tragic death, this time with two victims, for the purpose of getting new material.

This is an opera of splenetic outbursts and splintered lyricism. Passacaglias press in on the score only to be dropped. Voices weave soulfully in duet (shades of Peter Grimes) then fall into speech. There are shreds of vituperative jazz, madrigalian suspensions, fragmentary waltzes. Most of all, however, there are tantrums. As soon as the first drip of the ice-clock that dominates Tom Pye's set is heard, you know it is only a matter of time before the clock is smashed.

Individual performances are strong, despite a libretto-crunching balance problem between the singers and the orchestra under Stefan Blunier. Shaw has done her best to highlight the humour in Elegy, particularly in her direction of the silent hoteliers. But I wondered if, like Aida, a generous production budget hadn't hindered the project. As with the (not) Egyptians' Rupert Sanderson footwear, Lynette Wallworth's video projections seemed an unnecessary expense.

Four poems provide the framework for composer-director Heiner Goebbels' I Went to the House But Did Not Enter. Naturalistic in rhythm and harmonically conservative, choreographed to the minutest detail, these a capella tableaux explore actions considered and rejected (Eliot's The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock), nurtured slights (Blanchot's La folie du jour), giddy fantasy (a Kafka short story), and paranoid self-doubt (Beckett's Worstward Ho). Belongings are packed and unpacked, night traffic illuminates the front of a suburban house, slides are projected across the dowdy upholstery of a hotel room. As exquisitely lit as a Terence Davies film and sung with unflappable purity by the Hilliard Ensemble, it wears its seriousness lightly but very, very well, the poetry is crisp and clear, as though heard for the first time.

'Aida': to 16 May (020-7304 4000). 'Elegy for Young Lovers': to 8 May (020-7922 2922)

Next Week:

Anna Picard looks for angst, guilt and finally redemption as the BBC Philharmonic and the Hallé join forces for Mahler's Eighth Symphony

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions