Aida opened Washington National Opera’s season, and the production is stunning grand opera. From the remarkable singing to the stage pictures filled with RETNA’s startling, rich iconography, this is a production not to be missed.
I’ll confess I was dreading it. Am I the only one who wondered what the heck Artistic Director Francesca Zambello was going to do to top her Ring of the Niebelung cycle not to mention pulling off Phillip Glass’ Appomattox and then last season the lean, visceral Dead Man Walking? I also had been a big fan of her 2012 summer production of Aida at Glimmerglass Festival which stripped back some of the bulk of Verdi’s work to focus on the human cost of war. Its spare look was unapologetically contemporary; a harsh look at our involvement in war in the Middle East. I resonated fully with its art as political statement.
Yet, I am sure there were others in the opening night audience hoping for a return to the operatic canon. I spoke with a Mr. Newman entering the Great Hall of States on our red carpet stroll to the Opera House who shared with me he had just returned from Italy where he had taken in an Aida with elephants. He was going to be quite cross if there were no elephants in this production. (I wasn’t sure if he were serious, but please read further for his post-performance assessment.)
Gone were the elephants in this new production co-produced with four other major regional opera companies. On the other hand, there were no reductive themes of war or race played out to scratch our nation’s current itch for those provocative conversations. In many ways this was a production dominated by the inventive crossover artist RETNA (aka Marquis Lewis) and an imaginative celebration of art for art’s sake.
Gaining top billing for his collaboration, RETNA clearly brought his star status to bear. The man who developed his distinctive style, marrying ancient scripts (including Egyptian) with contemporary graffiti for this Aida, created wall treatments, backdrops, and simple set pieces (one that resembles somewhat Cleopatra’s Needle) that unfolded ever more gorgeous stage pictures which integrated well the emotions of each scene without distracting from the story.
From a monochromatic bunker that looked like a war zone graffitied and peppered with gunfire comes a transformation by fiery red emblematic backdrops that slide down into place signifying a mythical state’s militaristic superpower. There is also a night scene wherein the lovers meet where indigo and deep purples create a velvety mood that stirs the heart.
The casting was full-on “blind” as the parlance goes. Instead of symbolic political statements about power and race, the international multi-racial cast had been selected for the sheer vocal power of the individual voices as well as their vocal compatibility. The interplay of both voices and characters made for truly exceptional dramatic opera.
If there were any general statement being made, for me it was that military might mixed with a kind of blind patriotism is a dangerous thing. Each of the four main characters finds themselves caught up in a war where theirs is a struggle between their allegiance to their country and to the human heart.
The conflict is realized musically from the very first strains of the overture. Back and forth between the poignant feminine Aida motif and a darker, more strident motif connected with Isis but suggesting to me both war and doom.
Aida is the powerless slave in a foreign court who cannot act on her love for the Egyptian fighter hero Radamès. He, in turn, is blinded by ambition to fulfill a military hero’s destiny and lead his country in war without understanding fully the consequences of a military victory over his love’s beloved country. Amneris, the Egyptian princess is goaded to cruelty by her jealousy for Aida, but in this production one believes she deeply loves Radamès and can do nothing to save him when he proves himself a traitor. Amonasro, Aida’s father and king, is a soldier both humbled in defeat and angry. Unable to find any way to rescue his daughter or restore freedom to his people, in his frustration he lashes out at Aida which only deepens her own pain.
Tamara Wilson sang the title role opening night and displayed a voice of major power and delight. The sound she has is so full and in control even in the most delicate passages, it is delicious to hear her, even when she turns upstage and sings off into the wings; not an exquisite note or one word of communication is lost. Her sound seems effortless and her emotion true as she cries, “O Numi, sperdete” desperate for her father’s victory in war then prays “Numi, pieta.”
Mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk gave us a fully rounded gorgeously physicalized portrait of Princess Amneris, who in this production truly loves Radamès but lets her jealousy take hold and, her talons sharpened, damns them all to unhappiness. Her energized gestures, deportment, and the way she gives vent to her mixed emotions are as rich as her low notes, and it is a voice supremely blended top and bottom. “Vieni, Amor mio” sings in yearning for Radamès then kicks into high octane anger with Aida in the duet “Fu la sorte dell’armi.”
Yonghoon Lee walked on stage opening night as Radamès and in his first aria, “Celeste Aida, forma divina” he knocked our collective socks off by the sheer size of sound and emotional commitment. Following the first scene, it was hard to know where he could go from there. But indeed, he kept pulling out more power from somewhere and trapping it in his heroic core to tap into, his body was so pumped in that constant tension to fight. In the final act we see his other side and in the duet “O terra, addio” we hear the pathos of a man who cannot escape his fate but who nonetheless longs for a last chance at love.
For all its pomp and circumstance, Aida can be quite static in its staging as an opera, but Zambello’s way of unfolding a story on the stage proved once again she is a master of corralling large forces (including 76 chorus members, 19 dancers, and 10 supernumeraries) and helping big and small players create a full-blown life on stage dig into the relationships to help the audience invest in the drama so that everywhere you look on stage things are happening. I watched the Washington National Opera Youth Dancers dance in the harem (not so much harem boys but Mao’s little men in training) and later in the triumphant march and there wasn’t one moment where every single one of them wasn’t totally present. Nothing or rather no one is overlooked by Madame Z.
The full complement of singers and dancers are uniformly first class. Soloman Howard cuts a terrific figure as the King of Egypt, a man so caught up in the pomp and glory of victory that he can’t see the suffering of those he conquered, his voice a thing of power and might. Morris Robinson as the High Priest Ramfis is so imposing a figure and voice that he commands fearful respect. Gordon Hawkins’ Amonasro creates a clear dramatic line as Aida’s father and vanquished king and infuses the role with humanity.
closes September 23, 2017
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Still the opera would not have attained its robustness without the dynamic dancing of Jessica Lang’s company that was integrated so beautifully into the show. Smartly the choreographer drew on sources other than clichéd Egyptian-like posturing in profile. In Act I, I caught some moves from classic Broadway-style Jerome Robbins for the males’ home-from-war dance. Later to evoke grief and mourning of those conquered in war, there were little nods to Martha Graham in the contractions and angular extensions of arm movements. All nine dancers are very strong and expressive but special mention must go to Kana Kimura for her exquisite extensions and goddess-like grace.
There were miraculously few glitches opening night with the great assemblages of persons and design trappings of this show. Transferring this vast population from rehearsal hall to the Opera House stage is no small feat. I confess I did not get the scene with Radamès bound with the long silk banners, and where the entire chorus, crushed upstage, masked him for so long it seemed anti-climactic not to reveal some major dramatic action. Amneris likewise seemed uncomfortable staggering against a tangle of black banners trailing floor to ceiling. But otherwise, what a thrill to see so many moveable parts come together.
The young conductor Evan Rogister has returned to the WNO to lead the orchestra in this production. From the prologue’s first motif, he brought out the beauty and conflicting tonal worlds of the score with an enthusiasm that was catching. He was clearly in his element shaping the robust sound of the orchestra and chorus. The male chorus especially had a tremendous sound and presence. I loved the horns coming on stage for the grand march. When Rogister took his bow with the ensemble, I thought he might break out dancing with delight. I wanted to do the same.
By the way, I happened to check back in with Mr. Newman and his summation of the production matched mine: two thumbs up.
And don’t forget September 23, the opera comes to the Nationals Park for one special HD performance. And you get the national anthem thrown in for free – only better sung! That’s really Zambello’s well-executed vision: opera as American as baseball.
Aida. Composed by Giuseppe Verdi. Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Conducted by Evan Rogister. Concept Designed by RETNA. Scenic Design by Michael Yeargan. Costume design by Anita Yavich. Lighting Design by Mark McCullough. Choreography by Jessica Lang. With Yonghoon Lee, Morris Robinson, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Tamara Wilson, Soloman Howard, Frederick Ballentine, Madison Leonard, Gordon Hawkins, dancers from Jessica Lang’s Company, the Washington National Opera Chorus, and Youth Dancers from Washington National Opera Orchestra Co-Produced by Washington National Opera San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, and Minnesota Opera at the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith