WNO’s new ‘Aïda’: Old Egypt meets American Graffiti

Generally fine singing encounters strange sets and novel directorial approach, resulting in an enigmatic opening night for a classic Verdi masterpiece.

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WNO's new production of Verdi's "Aïda." On platform, center: Yonghoon Lee (Ramadès) and Ekaterina Semenchuk (Princess Amneris). Far left, stage apron: Gordon Hawkins (Amonasro) and Tamara Wilson (Aïda). Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

WASHINGTON, September 12, 2017 – The Washington National Opera (WNO) picked the right masterpiece – Verdi’s popular, splashy and romantic Egyptian tragedy “Aïda – to launch its 2017-2018 season at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.

“Aïda” is the stuff of legends, famed for its winning blend of music and spectacle, which, at times, has featured productions augmenting its famous mid-show production number by adding elephants, horses, and huge celebratory crowds, underscoring the true meaning of the term “grand” opera.

WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello has chosen to re-imagine “Aïda” as an intimately personal chamber opera, which, in some ways it may very well be. The stage spectacles long associated with this work are certainly a key part of its story and its history. But in terms of running time and subject matter, much of this work focuses on intimate solos, duets and ensembles among the small subset of major characters.

Does this new approach to an old war-horse work? It might, in theory. But the production we attended on opening night seemed unfinished and something of a mixed bag.


Start with the rather strange sets that dominate this brand new co-production, underwritten by an impressive consortium including the San Francisco Opera, the Seattle Opera and the Minneapolis Opera as well as WNO. The sets were designed by West Coast-based, Gen-X graffiti artist RETNA, formerly known as Marquis Lewis.

As an artist, RETNA seems fascinated – no, obsessed – with arranging various scripts in block-like formations. His best known artwork often consists of assemblages of bizarre letters and forms whose components bear an uncanny resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphics, with some Arabic and Hebrew forms mixed in as well, just to make things interesting.

(Opera audiences and other KenCen visitors can get the flavor of RETNA’s art by viewing a free exhibit of panels that were painted by the artists especially for these performances. Check out the video below.)

Initially, the opening scene’s massive baseline concrete-gray pillars and walls create a grim, prison-like setting that seems antithetical to the grand, romantic content of this exotic opera. Perhaps this setting, which looks like some kind of urban bunker with etched graffiti, is meant to emphasize that “Aïda’s” title character is a prisoner-hostage from the opening scene until the final curtain. It’s hard to tell.

Color eventually does erupt, thankfully, as the opera progresses. It displaces much of the gray by adding gossamer streaming curtains and fabrics enhanced by evocative lighting. The latter bursts forth in glorious shades of yellow and  orange, hemmed in by pivotal, death predictive scenes bathed in ominous blood red.

When it occurs, the opera’s colorful pageantry is further accentuated by massive slabs of RETNA’s signature calligraphy that seem to glow from within. By design as much as by coincidence, this calligraphic décor calls to mind not only ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics but also to some extent the current century’s street art.

In what may have been an unfortunate lack of communication among this production’s design team, Anita Yavich’s genuinely puzzling costume stand out, and not in a good way. Costuming varies wildly, ranging from Princess Amneris’ bright yellow, almost Egyptian gown, to Aïda’s sparrow-dull, scullery maid dullness. E

Amneris (Ekaterina Semenchuk) confronts Aïda (Tamara Wilson) in WNO’s new production of Verdi’s “Aïda.” Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

Even weirder are the costumes of the male cast members, including the strange, bureaucratic and military garments that mix African motifs with military uniforms that evoke fascist, Communist, and specifically Maoist memories. When the small but excellent entourage of ‘tween dancers emerges attired in costumes that somehow seem derived from Greek military uniforms, the visual discord becomes indecipherable.

Perhaps this incongruous blend of multicultural military allusions is seen as more important than what’s going on in the opera itself. In the end, confused by far too many clashing symbols, costumes and visuals, the entire, ambitious production ends up visually as a kitchen-sink affair rather than offering a coherent vision.

Thankfully, we still have Verdi’s wonderful music, which on opening night was most effectively performed by WNO’s Orchestra. This underappreciated house band was at the top of its game under the enthusiastic baton of Evan Rogister.

With regard to the vocal performances, the principals, in the main, sang passionately and well, though key characterizations were never fully realized. For their part, the WNO Chorus was wonderfully crisp and effective throughout this approximately three-hour performance.

What was problematic on opening night was a sense that the principals in this production remained largely two-dimensional characters throughout. For a “chamber opera,” the opening night performance rarely achieved a strong sense of intimacy, rarely persuaded us we were hearing and viewing the expression of real, heartfelt love and emotion.

After an uncertain start, the voice of tenor Yonghoon Lee (playing the opera’s flawed romantic lead, General Radamès) blossomed into the kind of ringing, forceful clarity this part requires.

As Radamès’ intended, this opera’s much put-upon heroine, Aïda, soprano Tamara Wilson sang beautifully, though somewhat timidly at first. The truth is, she seemed victimized throughout by this production’s apparent insistence that Aïda be portrayed as, well… as a hapless female victim doomed by war, by class, and by the fake moral and sexual rigidity of unfeeling, warlike men.

Either by accident or design, Aïda’s character fails to mature into anything more than a hapless, meaningless pawn in a tragic game already pre-determined by fate. Her dull, low-class costuming seems designed to emphasize that point.

Perhaps as a result of this, neither Ms. Wilson nor Mr. Lee were able to develop the romantic chemistry this opera needs to drive its passionate narrative to an effective, dramatic climax. Both artists were more than worthy of their respective roles. But the attraction of their two characters to one another was never fully realized until the opera’s final, tragic scene where suddenly, somehow, things finally seemed to click.

Bass Morris Robinson – and his booming, authoritative voice – proved both imposing and implacable as the stern Egyptian high priest Ramfis, whose hatred for the enemy and desire for revenge sets this opera’s final tragic scene in motion.

Center left (with sword): Dancer Kana Kimura. Center: Morris Robinson (Ramfis). Center right, facing Ramfis: Yonghoon Lee (Radamès) in WNO’s “Aïda.” Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

Likewise impressive in his small but pivotal role as the King (Pharaoh) of Egypt, up-and-coming bass and Domingo-Cafritz alumnus Soloman Howard brought integrity and solemnity to the royal proceedings with a brilliant instrument that is clearly headed for greater things, and soon.

Vocally and dramatically, the best performance on opening night clearly belonged to mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, who nearly alone among the principal characters entered into the very soul of the opera’s villainess, the Egyptian Princess Amneris.

In many ways, Amneris’ character is as central to this opera as is Aïda herself, as the princess cleverly discovers that her secret rival for General Radamès’ hand in marriage is none other than Aïda, the captive Ethiopian princess she despises and routinely abuses. Crisp, straightforward, and decisive until she remorsefully recognizes the evil that she’s done, Ms. Semenchuk’s Amneris becomes the real driving force of this production.

Speaking of driving forces, a hat tip as well goes to veteran baritone Gordon Hawkins. In his welcome return to WNO, Mr. Hawkins is outstanding in his brief but important role of Amonasro, an Ethiopian prisoner of war who is also secretly the King of Ethiopia and Aïda’s father.

Still an implacable foe of the Egyptians, Amonasro quickly takes advantage of Radamès’ pardon for all Ethiopian political prisoners, as well as his own daughter’s love for the Egyptian general, to reignite the just-ended Ethiopian rebellion under the very noses of his enemies. In his ruthless, slashing portrayal of Amonasro, Mr. Hawkins, like Ms. Semenchuk, brings a visceral passion to his character. In the process, he injects considerable and much-needed life and conviction into this production’s second half.

A gracious mention is also in order for the exquisite principal dancers in this production, all under the direction of choreographer Jessica Lang. While their light, gossamer-white costumes were perhaps reminiscent of “Swan Lake” – another example of this production’s supremely weird costume choices – the dancing and choreography executed by these sensitive young artists was vigorous yet ethereal throughout.

On the whole, WNO’s “Aïda” is, for this reviewer at least, an eccentric production that emphasizes setting and costuming while leaving the central characters and story line in the background. Perhaps this is part of WNO’s very understandable attempt to enlarge its audience by reaching out to individuals who normally would have no desire to attend the opera but could be tempted to do so.

Yet leaving a cast of fine singers to fend largely for themselves, lost in this production’s confused, somewhat urban contemporary concept of “Aïda,” ends up putting Verdi’s immortal music and drama firmly in the back seat.

Rating: ** (Two out of Four Stars)

WNO’s new production of Verdi’s “Aïda” continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through September 23. The final performance will be simulcast free to the big screen at Washington Nationals ballpark. Starting time is 7 p.m., but there’s plenty for the kids to do before hand if you want to bring a picnic and your family. For general details, check out WNO’s “Opera in the Outfield” page or click this special link for all the details.

Note: Alternate casts will perform “Aïda” on select dates. Alternative cast members will include Arlington, Virginia’s own Carl Tanner in the role of Radamès as well as Marina Prudenskaya (Amneris) and Leah Crocetto (Aïda). Visit WNO’s “Aïda” page for cast details.

Tickets and Information: Ticket prices range from $45 to $300. Click this link for details. To purchase tickets, scroll to the bottom of the page and click the link to the performance that interests you.

 

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