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LONDON (Reuters) - Egyptian pyramids and elephants have made way for ethnic violence, pagan ritual and death in the Royal Opera House's blood-filled, sexually charged new production of Verdi's classic "Aida."
Director David McVicar and set designer Jean-Marc Puissant sought to root the narrative firmly in the past while avoiding specific settings, in a bid to make the story more relevant to a contemporary audience.
So rather than emphasizing ancient Egypt, other influences ranging from Aztecs to samurai warriors were among the inspirations for the costumes and designs for the opera. Puissant also drew on photographs of the Afghan capital Kabul devastated by civil war and paintings by Mark Rothko to create a dark, almost colorless backdrop for the grisly story.
Flayed corpses are suspended over the stage for the scene in the Temple of Isis and men are sacrificed after an erotic dance of death in a production which divided a packed audience on the first night late on Tuesday.
While the singers were generally warmly applauded, some viewers booed the production team as it came on stage after the performance.
"The central intention of my design was to stick to the director's brief, and that was to create a platform for the performances and music, and for Verdi's themes to be seen for what they are and not through the Egyptian postcard look," Puissant said in an interview.
"I think there has been some surprise about it but I'm very happy with that," he added, when asked what he thought about the reaction at the premiere.
"People had to go away and think about it. I find it (public dissent) quite healthy, particularly with a piece like Aida. It's wonderful if someone can say, 'At last I don't agree with this.'"
Puissant said that making Aida relevant to a contemporary audience was what Verdi was trying to do in the first place.
Although set in ancient Egypt, the war with Ethiopia means that the characters are caught up in a similar situation to that in many countries today, he added.
"There was a strong influence of the contemporary world," he said. "There is something universal and ageless about what happens after a war, so we were keen to draw on some of that without being too literal."
Puissant drained the set of bright colors, arguing that religious ceremonies in ancient Egypt would probably have been held at night time rather than in the intense heat of day.
Early reviews were generally positive, with the Independent daily giving the production four stars out of five.
"It isn't pretty but it's a whole lot more pertinent than the picture book-inspired ... approach," wrote Edward Seckerson.
"What is Princess Amneris wearing this season? Revenge."
Aida runs at Covent Garden until May 16.
Editing by Steve Addison