Opera: Aida, Coliseum, London

Fashion show at Pharoah's court
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The Independent Culture

Not even the scornful Amneris proved louder than the sets and costumes in English National Opera's new Aida. As Zandra Rhodes, pink-haired and bejewelled, held court to a host of admirers from her seat in the stalls, this season's ancient Egypt line was in preparation backstage. All that was missing was the catwalk – and even that was implicit in Jo Davies' walk-and-show staging and the pop-up picture-book sets.

As the music director, Edward Gardner, unveiled Verdi's prelude in a succession of beautifully dovetailed string phrases, all eyes were primed for the first arrivals: Radames sported midnight-blue and brown pleats, Amneris did not disappoint in orange chiffon with huge sleeves and power-braided hair, and Aida was permitted tailored grunge, as befitting a slave. Oh, and they sang, too.

Actually, Rhodes had done her homework diligently, and what she presented in abundance were colourful "couture" imitations of well-researched originals. Pharaoh's court lit up the stage in a blaze of gold pleats and turquoise head-dresses; iridescent fabrics flowed freely, framed in the shifting panels of the set, which configured a series of pyramid shapes spiriting us fluently and effectively from one location to the next. What was rather more confusing, not to say distracting, for the eyes was the riot of doodles and daubs adorning them. Primitive art? Child's play, more like.

But the pop-up pictures worked adequately enough at conveying a Hockney-esque naivety into which Davies could drop her principal players. And that's all her production was, really – a fashion shoot, a series of static tableaux animated only by the occasional jump-cutting of lighting cues.

But let's be honest: Aida is pretty rudimentary in its dramatic requirements anyway. The big set-pieces – not least the triumphal scene – test a director's crowd control more than they test insight. And Davies, along with the choreographer, Jonathan Lunn, marshalled the troops without obvious collision, making room for acrobats, dancing children, and a "human" elephant with huge tusks and billowing turquoise ears. It also rained gold, as Rhodes acolytes would not just expect but demand.

But enough of what we saw – the best news of the evening was what we heard. Orchestrally, this was easily as exciting an Aida as I have heard in the opera house. And I've heard a few. Gardner delivered a performance of real personality and dynamism, where pacy, volatile tempi were set in high relief against the cool atmospherics of the nocturnal Nile scenes. The real drama of the evening unfolded in the pit.

That said, ENO fielded strong principals. I've heard many a distinguished tenor crack under the strenuous tessitura of Radames. But John Hudson sang with heart and stamina, and even attempted the difficult diminuendo on the high B-flat of his celebrated entrance aria. It isn't a great voice, but it's an extremely useful one.

Iain Patterson, too, made his mark as Amonasro, Aida's father; the American mezzo Jane Dutton, in her house debut, may have come over as a shade matronly for the glamorous, imperious princess Amneris, but she undoubtedly has the vocal equipment for the great scenes of rivalry – that is, big notes at dawn.

Above all, though, the evening was a triumph for Claire Rutter as Aida. This was a performance of international quality in a role that, like Radames, has proved a stumbling block for the great and the good of sopranos over the decades. But Rutter didn't drop a single stitch.

She dominated the ensembles with her shining top, she phrased with unfailing musicality, and she floated the high ledger lines of that treacherous lament for her homeland in Act III with deceptive ease. Equally impressive was her farewell to life in the final scene – the evening's most effective visual coup, with the walls of the pyramid quite literally closing in on the lovers.

So go not so much to see Rhodes's designs as to hear Rutter and Gardner. You won't better either of the latter in a hurry.

In rep to 7 December (0870 145 0200)