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)
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