Robert Wilson, the witheringly chic and autocratic decorator from Texas, specialises in giving the classics a make-over. Having installed an Armani retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, he has sashayed across to the Royal Opera House and applied his customary veneer to Aida. The result is the same: pretty postures and exquisite pastel lights, all timed with finicky precision. What's missing is the visceral drama of the opera, its passionate torment and its moral conflicts. Wilson cannot tell the difference between Armani's empty frocks and Verdi's agitated human beings.
"Who are the worst-dressed people?" Wilson peevishly demands in an article written for the Royal Opera programme by Dr Eduardo Benarroch. "Opera singers," he promptly answers. He has therefore swathed the Egyptian Princess Amneris in purple bandages, given her a feathery beret, and set her prowling the stage in slow motion, like the wicked witch of the Nile on Mogadon. Aida, her abject slave, gets to wear a white nightie - or perhaps it is a hospital costume, since Wilson's repertory of approved gestures, which require her to keep her arms outstretched and her fingers strictly separated and curled upwards, makes her look as if she is in traction. The singers Ildiko Komlosi and Norma Fantini, revolving in circles like dummies on motorised plinths in a shop window, have presumably been told that it is more important to hold their poses than to sing in tune.
With the tenor over whom the two women squabble, Wilson faces more of a struggle. Johan Botha, as the warrior Radames, has a voice that is valiant enough for the part, but when moving, he looks like a boulder rolling implacably downhill. Wilson therefore clothes Botha in a black sack - perhaps hoping that he will disappear into the set's nocturnal murk. Who cares that the music which Verdi composed for Radames suggests the glare of a tropical sun brassily bouncing off his armour? For the final scene, in which Radames is entombed alive, a bright blue spotlight is trained on Botha's face. Perhaps he is dying of hypothermia, even though the orchestra, catching his last choked breaths, clearly diagnoses suffocation.
It's a slick, silly reduction of a work that so touchingly describes the misery of people trapped by a theocratic dictatorship. Wilson brainlessly ignores the politics of the piece, and has a numb incapacity to sympathise with the emotional convulsions in the music. Amneris, after handing Radames over to the priestly police, listens in a delirium of remorse as he is sentenced to death; this is one of Verdi's greatest scenes, a supreme opportunity for a galvanic singer. Komlosi, however, jerks through Wilson's usual semaphoric drill while the cyclorama flashes blue, green and yellow. At the climax of an opera, I don't think it's the lighting console that should be emoting. Wilson, according to the pious explication of his philosophy by Dr Benarroch, "believes in space, time and light". It is a pity that Wilson's blissed-out credo does not extend to believing in Verdi.
Antonio Pappano, conducting a production he insisted on importing from Brussels, begins promisingly as the strings stealthily whisper Aida's name. He understands that despite its strutting parades and blaring trumpets, this grandest and noisiest of operas is actually about people who flee from the visibility of the public arena and seek private shelters in which to soliloquise. Even Radames, ambitiously daydreaming aloud in his aria "Celeste Aida" (admirably executed by Botha), ends on a wistful piano, as his vision of triumph dematerialises.
But the pining, homesick lyricism in the score cannot be elicited without an Aida whose voice is tenderly sensual. A man behind me yelled "Brava!" whenever Fantini emitted a shrieky high note, and pounded his feet on the floor in a sit- ting ovation; I assume he was one of the soprano's relatives. For my part, I nostalgically studied the programme's photographs of Leontyne Price and Montserrat Caballe, who sang the role at Covent Garden in the golden age that was my youth. Dr Benarroch, helpfully prescribing how the audience should respond to Wilson's production, says that we should "not forget to hear the light!". I would have preferred to hear the music.
Totalitarian regimes are asphyxiating and inhuman, whether the ruler is an Egyptian pharaoh or a Texan guru whose deity is electricity. During the military triumph, a female member of the chorus, compelled to stand rigidly to attention for 15 minutes, swayed, tottered and would have fallen over if two high priests had not closed ranks around her and trundled her into the wings. That anonymous woman, for me, was the opera's true heroine: it is punitive and perverse to make live human beings imitate statues, and her accident was the only moment of spontaneity in a deadly evening.
Aida is at the Royal Opera House, London W1 (020 7304 4000) until 28 November