by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN Contributing Writer
BY GUISEPPE VERDI
LIBRETTO BY ANTONIO GHISLANZONI
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
May 5 (same cast on 5/11, 13, 16 & 19)
I first saw Verdi's epic opera, Aida, at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome when I was 14 years old. It was a great setting for a person's first opera - an open-air amphitheater in ancient Roman baths - and a great production that included a procession with camels, horses, and a real elephant, a cast of hundreds, and Virginia Zeani in the title role. There were chariots, pyramids, a sphinx, and a volcano erupting in the background. The production lived up to the Italian word for opera - spectacolo! It was the kind of experience that would make a kid grow up to love opera.
Seattle Opera's current production of Aida, while lacking camels and an elephant, offers a wonderful rendition of Verdi's unforgettable, triumphal music in this story about an Egyptian princess, Amneris, who is in love with Radamés, the Egyptian army officer who turns back a barbarian invasion. Radamés is in love with the captured barbarian princess, Aida, so that the conflict of love between Amneris and Aida mirrors the larger conflict of war between the Egyptian and barbarian armies. It's a clever plot and an excellent libretto by Ghislanzoni, which, in my view, is at the heart of successful opera. It's very difficult to write a good opera if the libretto is badly constructed, so Verdi was fortunate to have a good foundation for his commission that opened the Royal Opera House in Cairo in 1871. That production, given its setting, was full of temples, camels, hieroglyphics, and sphinxes, which is what we have come to expect from Aida over the century and a half of its existence.
So it was somewhat surprising that stage director Francesca Zambello has downplayed the Egyptian references in this production, which attempts, as stated in a program note, to take 'a modern approach in order to better connect with the humanity of the characters and more clearly see how they mirror who we are today.' Frankly, I don't buy the idea that things have to be modernized to 'more clearly connect' historical works with the present. If that were true we would have trouble caring about any of the stories placed in the past - Homer's Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy, Don Juan, Les Misérables, Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera - heck, even 'Downton Abbey' - that still enliven popular culture. It's better to just update things when inspired, without dismissing or downgrading the past, as if we are somehow different in our loves and emotions than our ancestors. I think a lot of people would have enjoyed seeing some pyramids and sphinxes in Aida, without losing the emotional thread of love gone wrong or of war that tears people's lives apart. Better, in my opinion, to update to a real time and place, like the Civil War, Vietnam, Afghanistan.
That said, Zambello's updating to an undefined present in an imaginary place was a bit of a mish-mash for me - fake graffiti/hieroglyphics that cluttered the stage, uniforms and insignia that resisted any attachment of meaning, cartoonish grandiosity that went over the top with a hail of golden confetti. I think audiences can be trusted with images of the historical past - even constructs of 'historical past' - without losing the connection to their own hearts. Nevertheless, this Aida is still a fine production for all the things that make music lovers love opera - a great orchestra well-conducted, wonderful music beautifully sung, and, in this production, charming dances choreographed by an inventive dance-maker.
On opening night, Aida was sung by debutante Leah Crocetto, whose powerful spinto soprano was a perfect match for the role. Her voice was both affecting in its soft expression and impressive in its fury. I'm looking forward to hearing her in Il Trovatore this coming season. Brian Jagde's Radamés was gratifyingly strident and powerful, and though one wishes he had floated his high notes a bit more, he is a fine actor and clearly a tenor to watch. Even supporting roles, such as Messenger Eric Neuville's tenor and High Priestess Marcy Stonikas' soprano were beautifully rendered, giving the production a confident, solid base to match John Fiore's precise, energetic conducting. Jessica Lang, the increasingly famous and admired choreographer, has also set her stamp on this production with a troupe of nine young boys, dressed as mini-soldiers, who enliven the scenes with their marching and tumbling. They brought a light touch to a serious subject.
The only complaint I have about the otherwise perfectly balanced singing was Milijana Nicolic's Amneris. This very statuesque and beautiful mezzo-soprano was the perfect princess - dignified, elegant, and goddess-like in all her gestures. She was a dream to look at on the stage, and very affecting in her spotlight scenes in Act III. Her voice, however, was not strong enough in its lower register to be heard over the orchestra. McCaw Hall has wonderful acoustics, and conductor Fiore's baton was sensitive to the special problem of dynamics in an opera orchestra. I only wish that Amneris - whose role is so important that the opera could have been named 'Amneris' instead of 'Aida' - had risen to the level of the rest of the cast.
Complaints aside - we opera-lovers always have our complaints - I left the auditorium feeling very moved by the sorrowful, touching end of the faithful lovers, and the broken hearted princess whose love brought death on the very man she had hoped to marry. Ghislanzoni's libretto is the hero here, since it enabled Verdi to write such a moving score, with its wide variety of drama, dance, and tenderness. It tells a great story, both on a personal and a political level, and it uses all the considerable resources of our wonderful Seattle Opera Company to its fullest.
And it has plenty of spectacular moments - enough to make a kid grow up to love opera. Aida will be performed at McCall Hall through May 19.
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