Dolora Zajick (left) has power to spare, but Zvetelina Vassileva is strained...
Andrew Cloud

Remember cheesy B-movies? Set in exotic locales, feebly constructed out of pasteboard and duct tape, these camp quickies were shot on the run (usually without retakes, which were too expensive) and acted in a broad, pantomime-driven style. Houston Grand Opera's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's immortal grand opera Aïda revives these drive-in memories with the horrid rush of a traumatic flashback.

Of all operas in the rep, Aïda (1871) demands to be seen as well as heard. It cries out for Cecil B. DeMille. Verdi, creator of Nabucco, Macbeth, Rigoletto, Traviata and Trovatore, wrote it that way. A master of theatrical craft, he knew more about staging than any impresario. He instinctively shaped his sublime music and librettos into remarkably dramatic wholes — his operas don't dawdle, they gallop.

Aïda is supposed to knock our socks off aurally and visually, with moonlit temples on the banks of the Nile, sumptuous palace interiors, mysterious inner sanctums filled with incense and gloom, a split-level set (his own design) to reveal claustrophobia below and splendor above and, most famous of all, a majestic triumphal scene that trumps any parade by Barnum & Bailey. You can almost see the poster: “a cast of thousands!”



Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737.

Through May 5. $20-$200.

The story is a standard love triangle. Aïda, daughter of Ethiopian King Amonasro, who's waging war with Egypt, is now a slave to Egyptian princess Amneris, who's betrothed to Radames, Egypt's military commander. Radames, in turn, loves Aïda. Verdi elevates this simplistic plot through convincingly drawn characters whose musical intimacy offsets worldly pomp and Pharaonic pageantry. It's this terrific clash between private and public (family vs. state, if you will) that Verdi portrays so flawlessly. Almost all his magnificent operas have this wily, never-fail structure.

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HGO supplies Verdi's stunning, complex orchestral palette with splendid color and emotion, thanks to maestro Carlo Rizzi in a most impressive house debut. He propels this wondrous score with Toscanini-like tempi and electricity. Climaxes thunder, while quieter moments shimmer with whispered texture. The chorus resounds with remarkable agility and radiant tonal blend, whether portraying softly intoning priests of Ptah, jubilant citizens of stately Memphis or enchained prisoners bewailing their fate. The leads, however, are a mixed bag.

International super-diva Dolora Zajick (Amneris), one of the reigning Verdian mezzos, pours out titanic sound with power to spare. She's her own orchestra, and her character's frequent fiery rages could shatter pyramids thanks to that voice of steely velvet. But she can also tone it down and float limpidly through the quieter passages, barely rippling the water. The most basic of actresses, she lets her clarion vocal cords do the acting, which is okay by us, since she can sing this demanding role without breaking a sweat. Zvetelina Vassileva (Aïda) doesn't stand a chance. Basically a lyric soprano, she's taken on the heavier dramatic roles, and the stress shows. Buoyantly silky during softer moments, she goes flat, literally, straining to squarely hit those emotion-laden, quintessentially Verdian climaxes. Blustery tenor Marco Berti (Radames) doesn't even pretend to be in character — he plants his feet and shouts. Needless to say, there's not a hieroglyph of sex between him and his inamorata Aïda. Gordon Hawkins (Amonasro) is the real thing, however: a luscious-sounding Verdian baritone who's regal, paternal and suave, all at the same time. Unfortunately, he pops up during the Triumphal Scene wearing a comically ghastly Fuzzy Wuzzy wig and minstrel show “native” drag (more shades of Republic Pictures).

Director Jo Davies and designer Zandra Rhodes doom this production. Davies's lead-footed staging — the principals lurch and swirl in spasms when not arranged in a static line — pushes everything right to the front of the footlights, which renders acres of prime Wortham real estate behind them unused. There's no depth or height to the scenic picture; it's played solely on a flat horizontal plane that results in an incoherent traffic jam when more than a trio gathers.

Once all-knowing as the fashion Cassandra of '70s London with her gauzy glam fabrics painted with calligraphic patterns, Rhodes's designer eye has been clouded by cataracts. She hasn't a clue how to construct an appropriate, or flattering, costume for singers of a certainÉhow shall we sayÉsize. Poor Zajick resembles either an ancient Egyptian Hummer or a living orange mummy case, engulfed as she is by a hideous rope wig and bolts of pumpkin-painted lamé, while Berti's keg-size girth is fully accented by his tunic's sunburst stripes. The mosaic-pieced elephant in the Triumphal Scene is the cleverest design, while the stage's lapis-hued “legs,” which never stop maneuvering into pyramidal perspective, display a tastefulness sorely lacking elsewhere. But throughout, Rhodes's cartoony cutout sets look as cheap and flimsy as painted cardboard. If Aïda's grand opera, where's the grand?

A ton of sand would work wonders for HGO's ersatz Egypt. Make Verdi's day — dump it over the whole thing and never excavate.

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