In the 1860s, the Khedive of Egypt was spending his country's treasury like a drunken pharaoh. Heavily influenced by the West, he wanted to bring medieval Egypt up to speed, so he began an extensive — and expensive — public works overhaul, especially in Cairo. Swamps were drained, grand boulevards excavated, slums razed, schools built, the legal code modernized and the Suez Canal, with financing from France, was digging its way toward the Red Sea. Cairo was becoming Paris, with a brand-new opera house, the Italian Theatre, that would rival any in Europe. To commemorate the canal's grand opening and to christen his new theater, the Khedive needed a new opera, a world premiere. He wisely chose Giuseppe Verdi, who promptly refused. It was too late by then to negotiate with Wagner or Gounod, who were considered, so the theater opened in 1869 with Verdi's Rigoletto.
The Khedive wasn't used to being refused, so other entreaties were sent off to Verdi. When the composer's exorbitant demands and salary were agreed to, along with a tantalizing plot written by Egypt's Inspector General of Monuments, Auguste Mariette, Verdi was hooked. Four months later, Aida was on its way, scheduled for opening in July of 1871. The Franco-Prussian war brought a halt to the proceedings, because the sets and costumes built in Paris were warehoused behind the commune's barricades, but the Khedive's grand opera finally hit the stage in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871. It was an immediate international hit, and has never lost one hieroglyph of its power.
Filled with DeMille spectacle, scene-chewing passion and sublime music, Aida, one of grand opera's grandest, evokes the moonlit Nile, sumptuous palaces, gloomy temple sanctums, a split-level set that reveals claustrophobia below and splendor above (Verdi's own design) 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!" Aida also covers all the emotions — jealousy, hubris, revenge, patriotism, love, all in capital letters. It is Verdi's masterpiece (if you could choose one among so many).
October 26, 29; November 1, 3 (matinee) and 9. Houston Grand Opera, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. $18-$325.
Houston Grand Opera reprises the lame Zandra Rhodes production from 2006/2007 with its cartoon sets and costumes straight out of a Maria Montez Republic B-picture. Pushed to the front of the stage, the action is flat and lifeless as a bas relief, although the Lion King-like elephant is imaginative, if derivative, and the lapis-colored stage "legs" that open and close to form pyramid shapes emit a nice Egyptian vibe. The whole thing needs more sand, more grit.
The flatness infects the cast, except for internationally acclaimed, volcanic-voiced American mezzo Dolora Zajick, the foremost interpreter of Amneris, the Egyptian princess racked by jealousy. She could sing this role in her sleep. Her commanding voice is one of the wonders of the world, rich and plummy through all ranges, yet she can float a pianissimo with seductive softness. But it's her powerful agility that has made her the leading Verdian mezzo. She is out-of-this-world and rock solid. In the one-dimensional stage picture, you always know where she is.
The other sides of the operatic love triangle, enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida (Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastryska) and Radames (Italian tenor Riccardo Massi), the enemy Egyptian commander with whom she's in love, are on shakier ground. This couple is wooden as a mummy case.
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Monastryska, who recently made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Aida, has a mahogany finish to her plangent voice, and she, too, can float high notes with distinction. Her radiant romanza, "O patria mia," as she remembers her native country, is like a sigh, noted as a rite of passage for sopranos, in much the way Radames's hymn of praise to Aida, "Celeste Aida" ("Heavenly Aida"), is a tenor's Everest. Monastryska conquers the aria but seems ill at ease everywhere else. She doesn't make singing look easy. She spends more time glancing at maestro Antonino Fogliani than at her supposed lover.
Big and solid, Massi looks the part of ancient army general and sings Verdi's demanding role with determination if not clarion tone. His lower register is full and buff, but he shades into nasality when going big-time, landing top notes with an extra step up. But he certainly makes singing Verdi look fresh. We never see him breathe, never see the preparation. He just opens his mouth and out pours the sound.
With impressive panache, Fogliani elicits ringing fanfares and ethereal melody out of HGO's orchestra. The chorus is best of all, whispering priestly invocations with deep-dish mystery or declaiming in triumph while the faux elephant lumbers on. Dominic Walsh's frieze-fueled choreography enlivens the parade; American baritone Scott Hendricks gives Amonasro, Aida's father, nobility; Estonian bass Ain Anger is appropriately stiff-backed as inflexible high priest Ramfis; and Canadian bass-baritone Robert Gleadow growls imperiously as Pharaoh of Egypt.
HGO's Aida is sadly unremarkable. A-list Zajick is surrounded by B-movie. That's something Verdi never intended.