Director John Caird had already warned us not to expect any sphinxes or pyramids in his new Aida for Welsh National Opera. And he made his point even during the prelude - as the curtain rose on Radames dragging languidly on a hookah surrounded by recumbent, colourfully-gowned slaves.
OK, Caird seemed to be saying, we all know that Aida is a prime slice of high-Victorian orientalism. Let's run with that. So there wasn't a hieroglyph in sight. A maze of black walls served as the back-alleys of some middle-eastern souk, as well as refocusing the drama on the love-triangle at its centre - another of Caird's stated aims. It succeeded to an almost claustrophobic degree.
But if Aida is to convince as a chamber piece, that central human drama has to be utterly credible - and that's where the wheels fell off. The singing was excellent across the entire cast; the acting less so. As Aida, Zvetelina Vassileva delivered a heart-piercing Ritorna vincitor, but her reliance on stock gestures meant that her relationship with Dennis O'Neill's Radames never caught light.
To be fair, though, O'Neill made for an ungainly hero, even in the leather knee-boots WNO seems to foist on all its leading men.
That left Margaret Jane Wray's proud, predatory Amneris as the performance of the night. By her final confrontation with Radames, you were rooting for her simply because she genuinely seemed to want him more.
Carlo Rizzi conducted as if his life depended upon it, drawing a fervent, surging performance from an on-form WNO Orchestra and Chorus. It deserved better than the desultory applause it received from a restless and unresponsive audience.
* Repeated Saturday 7.15pm. Running time three hours.