Verdi in Houston

Houston Grand Opera
Presents a Spectacular “AIDA”

May 2007


Harley Schlanger

Left, Amneris (Dolora Zajick) tells Aida, kneeling (Zvetelina Vassileva) of her love for Radames.

photo by Andrew Cloud

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Harley Schlanger reviews the Houston Grand Opera's presentation of Guiseppi Verdi's grand opera AIDA in Houston, Texas, April - May 2007.

A Spectacular Aida

Giuseppe Verdi's conception for the opera Aida was that it would be a spectacular event. From the opening notes of the overture, the audience is drawn into a world which is both far away, and yet intimately familiar. An ancient civilization is brought to life on stage, at a moment of existential crisis.

Giuseppi Verdi, 1813-1901
Composer and Statesman
Embedded within that struggle is a tragic love story, as noble, and not-so-noble characters, seek to balance their love for their nation -- and their duty to their nation -- with their desires for personal happiness.

The conflicting emotions of patriotism and betrayal, love and rejection, family loyalty versus national duty, give Verdi a rich field from which to produce a variety of recognizable human strengths and frailties.

It should not be surprising that Verdi would be focused on the implications, and complications, for individuals, facing issues of grand strategy -- issues such as war, and matters of church-state relations. The opera premiered in Egypt in December 1871, one month after the convening of the first national Italian parliament in Rome, the culmination of a half-century struggle to establish a unified Italy. Verdi was himself an impassioned patriot and backer of unification, and one can see and hear, in the appeals to patriotism in the opera, the personal commitment he had to the ideal of a united nation.

It is also, therefore, not surprising, that “Aida” became one of his most popular operas in Italy, when it opened several months later in Milan at La Scala. There is an interesting paradox, which confronts an opera company, when undertaking such a masterpiece today. How do you reach an audience living in a state of permanent war, for which patriotism has been reduced to hollow grandstanding, and love is a matter of a multiple-choice selection on a television “reality” show? Do you “play it safe,” do a “standard interpretation,” which risks coming off as a museum piece? Or do you, instead, “jazz it up,” putting live elephants and tigers on stage, along with writhing, naked slaves, perhaps setting it as a gang war in Los Angeles?

The performance by the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) succeeded, brilliantly, because the company put its faith in Verdi, in his intricate orchestration, his haunting choruses, powerful arias and ensembles, while simultaneously taking a chance, with an original scenic and costume designer who brought new life to Verdi's Egypt.

HGO'S Triumph

I must admit that I was prepared to dislike the performance in Houston, after reading advance press hype of the vision of eccentric British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, who designed the set and the costumes. One review described her work, with its emphasis on bright colors, as “punk chic,” while a reviewer for the Independent of London wrote, “Opera fans may wish to take their sunglasses to the theatre.”

Radames (Marco Berti) returns triumphant
from war

Photo by Andrew Cloud

However, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw, as the ancient Egypt of Rhodes' vision was literally eye-catching,but not at all distracting. The flashy colors -- turquoise, gold and orange, in particular -- and the sets, especially of the Temple of Ptah and for the Triumphal March, insured that the audience was transported to a different time and place. Her use of hieroglyphics, and an ever-present eye, added to this effect, making the contrast between an ancient society, and the universal, modern quality of the emotions of the principle characters, even more striking.

However, the real triumph of the HGO production was its musical virtuosity. The orchestra, under the direction of Carlo Rizzi, was excellent, sustaining the transparent balance required by Verdi, in order to heighten the dramatic tension as the story unfolds. The lead singers were also superb, each coming to this production with an impressive resume of international performances in Verdi's operas. In particular, dramatic soprano Zvetelina Vassileva, a one-time student of the great Carlo Bergonzi, was terrific as Aida. Dolora Zajick as Amneris brought the full range of a Verdi mezzo-soprano to her role, making her character's internal conflict over her love for Radames, even as she participated in his destruction, believable. Marco Berti's Radames captured both the heroism of the military leader, as well as the pathos of the tragic ending he endured.

Radames (Marco Berti) assures Aida (Zvetelina Vassileva) that he loves her

Photo by Andrew Cloud

Commendations must also be extended to the wonderful work of the choruses, which play an important role in this opera. This is especially true for the chorus of the priests, which sings in piously reverential tones in the Temple, and then with lusty cries for blood and revenge, following the defeat of the Ethiopian army. (Indeed, a significant aspect of the tragedy of Aida is the insistence of the priests that defense of the nation required revenge, and that the defeated enemy, in the character of its king, Amonasro, likewise lived for revenge. Thus, the love between Radames and Aida was doomed.) The HGO chorus, under the direction of Richard Bado, performed superbly.

This production, which ran in Houston in April through early May, was a co-production with the English National Opera, the Norwegian National Opera, and the San Francisco Opera. It will be performed later this year in London and Oslo.

Ramfis (Tigran Martirossian) and the King of Egypt (Bradley Garvin) name Radames (Dongwon Shin, May 5 performance) the leader of the Egyptian army. (Photo by Andrew Cloud)

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