Aida, The Royal Opera House, London

From the dustbin of ancient history
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The Independent Culture

Has our musical press (or at least those members of it who have enjoyed their free trips to St Petersburg) been over-praising of the Kirov in the past? In their own Russian repertoire they are, of course, unique – an Iron Curtained time-capsule of lost performing-practices and unadulterated nationalist style – yet, even so, I can't say I'd recommend the Kirov CDs of Khovanshchina or Mazeppa, say, over the rival "Western" versions under Abbado or Järvi, while on stage you too often have to savour the idiomatic singing while ignoring the risible non-productions and wobbly sets.

At Friday's Aida, though, it wasn't only the sets that wobbled (or, in the case of one painted flat, got stuck in mid-air). As the Ethiopian slave, Olga Sergeeva's tone was so tremulous, her vibrato so wide, her consonants so conspicuously absent, and her vowel sounds so muddied, nothing emerged but an endless mewling stream of meaningless sludge. Viktor Lutsiuk, her Radames, had no more idea of Italianate legato or phrasing than she, and, for the first two acts, couldn't seem to make up his mind where to pitch or even place his voice.

Both improved marginally in Act III, goaded by a wildly blustery but fully committed performance from Viktor Chernomortsev as Amonasro. Sadly, the best voice on stage, and the only true legato technique, belonged to the mezzo Larissa Diadkova playing Amneris: sadly, because she was so obviously there only to show them both off, belting out an unrelievedly loud and one-dimensional interpretation of the role as nothing but a bullying harridan.

The original idea for Aida came from Auguste Mariette Bey, the famous archaeologist, which no doubt explains why the Kirov decided to dig up an old set of 1922 designs, whose monumental painted flats and "authentic" props were presumably inspired by recent discoveries in Tutankhamun's Tomb. But it's difficult enough to breathe life into this Metastasian piece without turning the cast into a set of walking wall-paintings, complete with hieroglyphic gestures and hieratic poses. The costumes didn't help, nor the nylon they were made of. Poor Radames looked just like Ernie Wise wearing a tablecloth: he even had the short, fat, hairy legs to match.

Amonasro was a "fuzzy-wuzzy" in a fright wig and a kilt (like Toad swathed in a travelling rug). Diadkova looked (and sometimes sounded) like Ira Siff in Madame Vera Galupe-Borzkh mode, and indeed the whole show, with its Pan's People dance routines and pointe-stepping soldiers mincing past in the Triumph Scene, could almost have been devised as a tribute to La Gran Scena, the transvestite opera company from New York.

Add Gergiev's brashly vulgar conducting, all crash-bang-wallop on the cymbals and the big bass-drum, and this was one of the most direly provincial Verdi performances I have ever seen. If Raymond Gubbay can seriously aspire to run the Royal Opera House, then on this basis, Ellen Kent, the cheroot-chewing promoter behind all those cut-price Moldovan and Latvian opera tours, should be a shoo-in for the job as the Kirov's next artistic director. A shame the Hochhausers didn't let the Kirov bring the promised Rimsky-Korsakov opera instead.

Last performance tonight (020-7304 4000)