OPERA North’s 1986 production of Aida, staged at Leeds Grand Theatre, shifted the action from the Egypt of the Pharaohs to Victorian London. An incongruous setting maybe, but one designed to reflect the imperialist bombast of Verdi’s own era.

Never mind ancient Egypt or 19th century London though: war, oppression and the displacement of people form the underlying strands of Verdi’s “Egyptian” opera.

Opera North’s dramatised concert staging is conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong and directed by Annabel Arden. Misty black and white video of devastated buildings and the battle fatigues worn by Amonasro and Radames suggest that we are in a theatre of war: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya? You take your pick.

The sixty strong Chorus of Opera North is placed above the orchestra like a crowd of animated spectators in their everyday street clothes. The spectrum of vocal colours and the visceral intensity of the choral singing is awesome.

The Orchestra of Opera North is expanded to Wagnerian proportions with nearly one hundred musicians arranged across the stage. Sir Richard Armstrong’s myriad shading of dynamics from a delicate pianissimo whisper in the high strings to a roaring fortissimo creates many thrilling “edge of your seat” climaxes. The blazing orchestral and choral pomp of the “Triumphal Scene” is emboldened by six extra long fruity-toned “Aida” trumpets played from the front of the stage.

Annabel Arden’s concept makes Verdi’s opera seem strikingly relevant. Crucially, she focuses audience attention on the intimacy of the private scenes enacted on the apron stage in front of the orchestra. The Act 2 confrontation between Alexandra Zabala’s Aida and Alessandra Volpe’s Amneris crackles with electricity. Aida’s Act 3 duet with Eric Greene’s imposing Amonasro is incredibly moving. The final “entombment” scene is more problematic. Having Rafael Rojas as Radames walk through something more closely resembling an airport metal detector and Aida conceal herself under a table doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Musically though, the scene with these two beautiful Italianate voices is utterly sublime. This superbly sung, unique staging of one of Verdi’s grandest operas returns to Leeds Town Hall on the 8th, 10th, 28th and 30th May.

Geoffrey Mogridge