It's almost two days since WNO opened their season with a new AIDA that was premiered in San Francisco last season and will also been seen in other venues that have co-produced. I am frankly in shock that the Washington Post has not even mentioned this wonderful night of glitterati as so many DC and non-DC figures were there such as RBG, Neil Shicoff and James Morris!
Original Sketches & Concept Design:
E. Loren Meeker
I described the production a little and will endeavor to elaborate on the intriguing sets by RETNA that actually gave me more of an Asian or Chinese feel than that of Egypt.
There is a curtain with many of the famous glyph/calligraphic symbols (which are rampant on FB as well as the WNO page) and I was told these mean nothing and are merely symbols. but I kept seeing many things, some funny such as donuts with ears and others meaning nothing. There is also an interesting exhibit of RETNA's work in the main hall leading to the theater, that is supposed to represent JFK's speech about arts in our nation.
The first scene is a war room with three long steel tables with overhead fluorescent light fixtures , the entire background wall is gray. The men are in military white and khaki that for me was quasi-fascist, but according to the production team is more late 19th century (I can see foreign legion). In the dress, Mr. Lee took an odd route for "Celeste Aida" tat bothered me a bit, and I was hoping it was a mezzo voce the other day. He repeated this at the prima and on some of the high notes where he went into his head voice combined with somewhat of a falsetto; it was very weird. When he sang his "trono vicino al sol" however it was in a full voice even though it was high. I was confused by his approach, perhaps an attempt to sing pianissimo, which he had a lot of trouble doing. When he sang in ensembles or fortissimo, it was simply brilliant and booming and filled the house. Ms. Semenchuk was a gutsy Amneris who who give up at nothing. She wore a gorgeous yellow gown with silver appliques and balloon sleeves and her hair was done up with a huge diamond tiara. The trio for the love triangle was directed so well as we knew from the start she was suspicious.
When the messenger, brilliantly played by Mr. Ballentine, delivered his bad news, Ramfis threw him to the floor in range as if it was the messenger's fault. He even goes to slap him again afterwards; this Ramfis clearly has an anger control issue.
Mr. Morris' bass was a perfect match to the formidable King of Mr. Howard; what a treat to have these roles cast so perfectly. Add to this the excellent chorus under Mr. Gathman and we had a "Guerra..." chorus that blew us out of the house.
The superb casting went on and it was apparent that Ms. Wilson is one of the best in the role today. Her "Ritorna vincitor" had her sneering at one point, but it was all in her voice and came across exquisitely with every perfect note, all the way to her anguished "numi pieta."
For the temple scene we had male dancers all in white pulling down six black banners from the top as a giant red glyph character was at the back behind Ramfis. There was a lot of dry ice and the invocation chorus was superb with the debut of our newest Young Artists Madison Leonard sounding angelic. The female dancers were also in white save for one with golden pleated underskirt and matching golden pleated arms making her look like an Egyptian goddess. She brought in a huge sword that was presented to Radames, and the choreography was quite enjoyable, with the men using their fists militaristically a lot. The priests are in sheer black drapes over their military outfits like Ramfis and carry large staffs which are club-like at the top. I must say that even if you hate the overall design of this show, which I definitely did NOT, the immensity of the chorus and setting for "Immenso Phtah..." was impressive.
Act II's boudoir scene had a large blue divan with pillows strewn on the floor and the female chorus in very colorful flowing gowns that reminded me much of the 60's, especially with the women having their hair done up in beehives or tresses an such. Many folks said this confused them with time setting, but I loved the color splash and hairdos. A group of 9 young boys dressed in military-school garb were the ballet and what a wonderful change this made from the tedious ballet we often get. They jump-frogged and leaped and really showed off their prowess; a true treat and highlight. It was so cute after they finished when one female chorister ran after one of the boys to kiss him (it was clearly her son!). Kudos bigtime to Jessica Lang.
We were treated to a super duet for the women and then moved on to the Triumphal Scene where the dancers carried penants and the side panels turned in and there were now bleachers with chorus left and right and those glyphs all over the place backlit with red at first and then other colors that matched the musical mood. Two large thrones came on left and right with steps leading to them for Amneris(l) and the King(r). The ballet had the women in white, but the adult men were now in military garb. The choreography again was awesome and at one point I thought I was watching a pas de trois from Sleeping Beauty or such; so classical yet so perfect.
Radames is slid in on a glyph-red chariot in full military garb now with gold epaulettes and Aida is at the front left way below Amneri's throne holding a pillow with the sash for Radames. When the King asks his daughter to bestow the sash, she snatches it off the pillow and sneeringly motions for Aida to get lost; I loved it. The prisoners are brought in with the guards holding a small 6x6 foot prison-gate that they move and then lift; it was a bit silly. The prisoners were in khaki military garb or looked like refugees. And as I mentioned before, I thought the booty looked cheap.
Mr. Hawkins' Amonasro was also a force to be reckoned with as he delivered his "Sua padre..." Gold confetti fell all across as the scene ended royally.
This production, as most today, is divided into two parts with Acts III/IV together and after the break the roars of approval for the orchestra and maestro Rogister were immense and well deserved. The curtain rose to a blue wavy background with a giant white "moonish" globe on the right. A stela was at the right forward with benches near it and three free-standing glyph 2-D tree-like structures to its left. Amneris entered in the same gown as Act II and went off to the rear followed by the King & Radames in conversation; some dry ice smoke hovered on the ground. Aida had the same dress for the whole show, but now had a head scarf which she lowered for an impressive, "O patria mia..." The last time I heard this aria at the KenCen Opera House was decades ago when Aprile Millo sang with us and came forward in the middle of the aria, stopped and left the stage saying, "Verdi deserves better, you deserve better; I cannot go on."
No hysterics here and Ms. Wilson delivered the goods with easily floated high notes showing no strain at all; each one lovingly caressed.
When Amonasro entered and spat the word "schiava" at Aida, whe blew up in a fit of a true drama queen. Can someone explain to me why Radames says he can tell Amneris (and all Egypt) the truth and go instead marry Aida, how does he expect to do this when the wedding is the next day--or that night??
For the trial we are back in the war room with one long table and two modern chairs at either end. Amneris is now in blue with flashy silver trim that resembles a kaftan. The dancers haul in Radames who is wrapped in those long black fabric swaths and the priests are back with their club-staffs. Amneris' curse at the end was indeed terrific.
The final scene has a scrim for a while and we could see Aida asleep at the left behind a block and Radames at the center on another block. There is a reddish backlit glyph again at the rear and a large ledge to the right (which Amneris appears on top of at the end).
I love this scene as it is so intimate and a truly wonderful mix of voices, but it is not a scene for a tenor to be as loud as Mr. Lee was. "O terra addio" always gets me going and even with the bluster it was spectacular and Ms. Wilson shone. the scrim eventually lifts and the rear section begins to get blocked out so there is less and less light and even as they seemed about to die of asphyxiation this tenor had way too much in his lungs. Amneris stood atop in the dark slightly lit as if on a pillar and the blissful end came with her deep "pace" intonations.
Next Sunday I get to return with a different trio of leads: Leah Crocetto, Carl Tanner and Marina Prudenskaya in what I understand is her US stage debut. Catch you at the opera!
ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC
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