That Verdi Magic
There's no simple recipe for the magic in Giuseppe Verdi's operas. Most agree that Rigoletto, the tale of a humpbacked court jester, has lots of catchy melodies. Few can resist Violetta, La Traviata's beloved prostitute who refuses a normal life on principle. But Aida's appeal can't be traced to favorite arias or characters. Some say it's more exotic; others feel it's grander somehow, or more sophisticated. It mixes all the classical ingredients -- love, war, intrigue and suffering -- while still managing to move at a swift, dramatic clip.
In its season opener, Houston Grand Opera elegantly brings Aida's universe to life. It's a grandiose world of Oriental opulence, ancient pharaohs, subjugated Ethiopians and lovers caught in the mix. Using Pier Luigi Pizzi's original production, the same one that opened the Wortham Theater Center in 1987 when Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni sang the leads, HGO successfully probes all forms of oppression resulting from jealousy, slave conquest and war. Uneven performances by the lead soprano and tenor didn't detract from what was otherwise an old-world feast.
Troubled by the suffering of his northern Italian countrymen at the hands of the Austrians, Verdi wrote a story about a nation oppressed by its neighbor to the north. Set in the palace of the pharaohs, the story focuses on Aida, an Ethiopian slave who serves Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian king. Unbeknownst to her captors, Aida is also a princess, the daughter of Amonasro, the Ethiopian king whose army threatens Egypt as the opera opens. But Aida puts herself in potentially compromising situation: She loves Radames, an Egyptian soldier enlisted to fight her people. Throughout the production, she's torn between loving him and her duty toward her native land.
Meanwhile, Amneris, who wants Radames for herself, makes Aida's life even more difficult. She nearly gets her man when Egypt conquers Ethiopia. Her father offers her hand in marriage to Radames as a prize for saving Egypt. But wedding plans are foiled when Aida's father, Amonasro, comes into the picture. He enters Egypt unrecognized as a captured Ethiopian slave. On the eve of Amneris's wedding vigil, Aida secretly waits for Radames near the Nile River. Before her lover shows, Amonasro visits his daughter and convinces (read: manipulates) her to trick Radames, so that he reveals the Egyptians' next attack plan. When Aida gets her lover to utter national secrets, Amneris overhears it and exposes him as a traitor.
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Despite her less-than-satisfying performance in the first two acts, former Houston Opera Studio artist and American soprano Marquita Lister looked regal as Aida. Hair tightly plaited, she managed to look servile in her strapless blue column dress tastefully slit halfway up the thigh. In act one, her voice came across with bold, dark ornaments during the vibrant "Ritorna vincitor!" but still lacked color at the extreme registers. Things changed when she teamed with American baritone Gregg Baker (Amonasro) in act three. Here the dethroned Ethiopian king shamed Aida into betraying Radames during a secret rendezvous on the shore of the Nile. Aida resisted, but her father was so insistent that he shoved her to the ground. The scene elicited some of Lister's finest passage work and dynamic contrasts.
American tenor Stephen O'Mara, who stepped in to play Radames when Italian Walter Fraccaro canceled to have surgery, seemed unable to project above the orchestra either while he sang alone or during duets with Lister and Russian mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova (Amneris). At times his tenor sounded thin and colorless. It brightened, though, during his duets with Lister in the burial tomb, especially during "La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse."
By contrast, Diadkova, a Kirov Opera regular, sang the role of Aida's rival with stunning versatility. During act one trios with Lister and O'Mara, Diadkova often sounded buoyant in comparison with the two leads. Even when her character was at its most calculating and jealous, Diadkova managed to manipulate her vocal cords to great effect, swelling and trilling to magnificent heights and depths. She had an uncanny command of Amneris's fickle ways, subtly and skillfully transmuting her buried passion for Radames into unqualified hatred at his continued rebuffs.
Baker's husky baritone richly imbued the show's middle acts. As Ramfis, the high priest, Australian bass Daniel Sumegi was authoritative and robust. Conductor Robert Abbado and the HGO Orchestra did justice to the Eastern feel of Verdi's woodwind strains and brassy marches.
Aida has plenty of memorable arias. There's Aida's aforementioned "Ritorna vincitor!," Radames's "Celeste Aida" and the "Triumphal March" of act two, but much satisfying music emerges from an immense, tuneful chorus, ably guided by HGO Chorusmaster Richard Bado. What the chorus members did for the ears, their costumes did for the eye, matching every delightful note with an equally delightful visual opulence. Wearing vivid orange robes, oriental costumes and gilded pharaoh-style headdresses, the supers and chorus filled out act four with gold-winged dancers, soldiers encased in lapis-studded shields, spear-wielding gladiators, gauze-bedecked dancers, and priests blowing trumpets and trombones.
Pizzi's sets included authentic gilded columns. His pyramid-style staircases evoked a primitive palace. Choreographer Sandra Organ created an assortment of balletic interludes that conjured the exoticism of Isis-worship. In her first-act arrangement, though, dancers' arm movements came across as stiff as they maneuvered inside one-piece bodysuits designed with no armholes. The group of six looked silly and a little mummified in the immovable costumes. Maybe that was the intent. But instead of coming off as exotic, it came off as contrived, particularly with the commanding demigod looming in the background.
In the show's final scene, we see the pharaohs punish Radames for treason. Waiting to die in an underground tomb, he discovers Aida has secretly crawled in with him. The notion that Aida would seal her fate this way is as shocking today as it probably was a century ago. Therein lies the magic of Verdi.
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