The set-up: 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 choose 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 July, 1871. The Franco-Prussian war put 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.
The execution: Filled with spectacle, scene-chewing passion, and sublime music that evokes moonlit temples on the banks of the Nile, sumptuous palace interiors, mysterious temple sanctums filled with incense and gloom, a split-level set that reveals airless 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 - that make opera grand. It is Verdi's masterpiece (if one could choose one among so many) and is easily accessible to anyone who wouldn't know opera from Oprah.
Houston Grand Opera reprises its lame Zandra Rhodes production from 2006/7 with its cartooony sets and costumes straight out of a Maria Montez Republic B-picture. Pushed to the front of the stage, the action is flat and devoid of much spectacle, although the Lion King-model elephant is imaginative, if derivative, and the lapis-colored stage "legs" that open and close forming pyramid shapes give off a nice Egyptian vibe. The whole thing needs more sand, more grit, and hot desert sun.
The flatness infects the cast, except for acclaimed, volcanic-voiced American mezzo Dolora Zajick, the reigning international interpreter of Amneris, who could sing this role in her sleep. Her voice is one of the wonders of the world, sailing through, and over, Verdi's thick orchestral color to give real life to the Egyptian princess racked by jealousy. For this revival, thankfully, her costumes have been lightened by more of Rhodes's gauzy fabrics, so she no longer looks like a walking sarcophagus as she did at this production's premiere. Rich and plummy, her instrument is beautiful through all ranges, and she can float a pianissimo with seductive softness like no other. But it's her phenomenal agility and power-in-agility that have made her the leading Verdian mezzo. She is divine, if not out-of-this-world, rock solid and commanding. In the cluttered stage pictures, you always know where she is.
The other two parts of the opera's 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.
Monastryska, who just recently made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Aida, has a mahogany finish to her plangent voice, and she, too, can float those high notes with distinction. Listen to her phrasing of Aida's radiant romanza, "O patria mia," as she remembers her native country. There's sadness in her voice, and then pride, as she's accompanied by solo oboe in the orchestra. The high C at aria's end, as if a wafting breeze among green valleys, is as notorious a rite of passage for sopranos as is Radames's ending to his hymn of praise to Aida, "Celeste Aida" ("Heavenly Aida") in Act I. Monastryska conquered the aria, but seemed ill-at-ease everywhere else. She doesn't make singing look easy, and her acting was fairly basic and surprisingly uninvolved. She spent more time looking at Maestro Fogliani than at her supposed lover.
This couple was hardly in love. Big and solid, Massi looked the part of experienced army general and sang Verdi's demanding role with assurance, if not clarion tone. His lower register is full and buff, but he shades into nasality when going big time, landing those top notes with an extra step up from underneath. But he certainly made singing Verdi look fresh. We never saw him breathe, never saw the preparation. He just opened his mouth and out poured the sound. This is his big plus. But he wasn't really there, wooden as a mummy case.
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Although communication between pit and stage turned fuzzy at times, Maestro Fogliani sped things up considerably, blaring out fanfares with impressive panache or spinning ethereal melody out of HGO's orchestra. The chorus was best of all, whispering priestly invocations with deep-dish mystery or declaiming in triumph while the faux elephant lumbers in. Dominic Walsh's frieze-fueled choreography livened up the parade with its mock battle between soldier and Ethiopeans; while the slave girls of Amneris's court balanced on pointe with ancient grace. American baritone Scott Hendricks gave Amonasro, King of Ethiopia and Aida's father, a noble bearing; Estonian bass Ain Anger was appropriately oily and stiff-backed as inflexible high priest Ramfis; and Canadian bass-baritone Robert Gleadow growled imperiously as Pharaoh of Egypt.
The verdict: Sorry to say, HGO's Aida is rather unremarkable, not the splashy, yet intimate, Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster it should be. Zajick is extraordinary, but she always is, so nothing special here. Unfortunately, she's surrounded by B-movie. That's something Verdi never wrote.
By the way, in 1879, while Aida was smashing all box office records as it made its juggernaut conquest of Europe and America, the Suez Canal was in the hands of the British, who had bought the controlling interest. Wracking up exorbitant debts, the profligate Khedive of Egypt was tossed out of office on his padded exterior, along with his harem, by the Sultan of Turkey, in cahoots with Great Britain. And next week, what opens at the Cairo Opera, which replaced the burned down Italian? What else, Aida.
Verdi's colossal work about love among the ruins plays October 20 (matinee), 26, 29; November 1, 3 (matinee), and 9, at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $18-$325.