OPERA REVIEW / A triumph for ritual theatre: Edward Seckerson on the Royal Opera's new production of Aida at the Royal Opera

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No elephants, no pyramids, hardly a cast of thousands - but the Royal Opera's new Aida is pretty as a picture. Only die-hard traditionalists will balk at the spectacle. Pageantry advances slowly downstage here in perfectly symmetrical lines. Against a sequence of simple backdrops - a golden tapestry, a full moon, aquamarine silk, billowing to suggest the close proximity of the Nile - director Elijah Moshinsky plays out his slow-motion rituals. That's always been his strength. The statuesque tableau. Cool, moody silhouettes are much favoured; endless processions traverse the stage; silently, between scenes (much to the amusement of impatient punters). And all of it is handsomely dressed. Michael Yeargan's costumes are an eyeful of yellows, oranges, ochres, golds; gold-leaf rains down on the conquering hero Radames; a dangerous looking combat ballet is, quite literally, a cut above. So what more do you want?

Drama? This is the theatre of ritual, choreographed (Kate Flatt) more than it is directed. And let's face it, Verdi's much-beloved opera doesn't bear too much scrutiny on that score. Yet there is still the crucial balance between private intrigue and public ceremonial to consider. Aida is a chamber piece in a grand opera framework. Again, the solution here is scenic. Moshinsky and his designer deploy variations on the same device they used so successfully in their production of Verdi's Attila: they frame the action almost cinematically, front and rear screens creating a changing aperture on to the full stage. Radames soliloquises about his 'Celeste Aida' and the stage opens like a camera shutter on her entrance. From private thoughts to public reality.

Aida (in this the first of two casts) is Cheryl Studer, a singer of considerable talent with not inconsiderable problems right now. This is her first crack at a role which is at the very centre of the lirico spinto art. Its difficulties cannot be overstated. Among them - and this is particularly true of the aria 'O patria mia' - are those treacherous pianissimo ascents into the topmost register. Time was when Studer could float such phrases with absolute security. But her support was consistently failing her on the first night: the pitch was slipping, painfully so; the tone was losing quality. She wasn't able to take the sound away and hold it there. And that's a sure sign that all is not well. At full voice, she can be glorious, making free with the portamento, creating some dark, dramatic colours with the words. She had her moments. But she urgently needs to ease up and take stock.

Dennis O'Neill has had his crises, too, but maturity has been kind to the voice. He's in his prime now. Some of the singing can be a little too artful, but I do appreciate those stylish little dovetails into a half- voiced dolce. All the more surprising that he didn't attempt the difficult, but rewarding diminuendo on the climactic high B flat of 'Celeste Aida'.

For the rest, Alexandru Agache's Amonasro and Robert Lloyd's Ramphis were stalwart. But, as is so often the case, Amneris stole the show. Luciana d'Intino is the possessor of a handsome, well-marinated voice with ample reach and a touch of smokiness in the colour. She found the beauty as well as the brawn in the role. The Judgement Scene dramatically isolated her at the centre of a completely open stage - a dark, tragic figure, accursed by her own jealousy - and she rose magnificently to it. Sir Edward Downes has been conducting Aida at Covent Garden for over 35 years. No sign of flagging yet.

In repertoire at the Royal Opera House, Covent Gdn, London WC2 (071-240 1911) to 22 July

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