Verdi built balance into Aida. The four-act plot balances with the steady musical structure; exoticism miraculously balances with the universal trope of love. Houston Grand Opera celebrates Verdi’s bicentennial this year, opening its 2013-2014 season with Verdi’s beloved opera. Stunning singing battling against an overpowering set, though, proved that great parts do not always make a synchronized whole.
Aida –a co-production with English National Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Norwegian National Opera–begins HGO’s 59th season that remembers not only Verdi’s bicentennial, but also Wagner’s. Das Rheingold, the first installment of the Ring Cycle, closes out the season that promises some rewarding Weinberg and Sondheim in between. Strauss’ Die Fledermaus follows most closely, opening October 25.
The triumph of this production was Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska who makes her HGO debut in the role of Aida. “O patria mia,” her big aria in Act III, inspired an enthusiastic chorus of bravos from the audience. In the aria, Aida laments the loss of her country and contemplates death in the Nile. It ranges from powerfully loud notes to whisper soft phrases—both difficult extremes to successfully pull off. Not only is it technically impressive, but the aria is built to be emotionally fraught. Although the key is F major, Verdi’s orchestration creates a “false tonic” of A minor. The height of the vocal line is a high C. Monastyrska’s vocal instrument proved its versatility here. Hers is a voice with breadth. She can achieve emotional intensity in any range, at any dynamic; that said, Monastyrska won me over (and, it seemed the whole house), when her voice was at its softest.
Joining Monastyrska in vocal excellence was Tenor Riccardo Massi as the dreamy Radames and Mezzo-Soprano Dolora Zajick as the jealous Amneris. Massi is a rare combination of voice and looks—both supremely perfect for the role of the Egyptian champion who inspired two princesses to fall madly in love with him. The timbre of his tenor voice is far from thin—a tricky thing to achieve when the score insists on such high notes. Consistently, Massi’s swarthy voice reached the height of scales easily. Zajick, in the role of Amneris, realized the complex character of a woman who inspires both sneering and sympathy. The ending relies on Amneris, the grieving lover outside the tomb, to bring closure to a tragic double-death. Equipped with a full mezzo instrument, Zajick brought the curtain down with class.
Mere weeks before Aida premiered in Cairo, Egypt on December 24, 1871, Verdi found himself at the first Italian production of Wagner’s Lohengrin in Bologna. While he enjoyed the prelude, musicologist Julian Budden writes that Verdi found much of it excessive from the slow-paced dialogue to the sustained pedal points. He was understandably upset when critics compared his operas to Wagner’s. After Aida’s premiere, one critic wrote “to deny that Verdi has been influenced by Richard Wagner is like denying light to the sun.” Verdi obsessively set to manage subsequent productions, making sure the instruments and sets adhered to his original directions—surely misinterpretation was the reason he had egregiously been compared to Wagner.
Yet, Wagner’s influence persists in HGO’s production. Given how much Verdi worried about the set, I imagine he would have balked at what Set and Costume Designer Zandra Rhodes conceived for this production. Rhodes captured an unfortunate side of Wagner’s totalizing theory for opera in the set: an obsessive affinity for triangles, hieroglyphics a four-year-old might have drawn, and creations pulled straight from Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!. I couldn’t look away, but I wanted to. The pyramid-like triangles persisted as though someone were afraid the audience might forget the opera was set in Egypt. This continued through to the end when a series of triangles forming the tomb actually closed in to signal suffocation for Radames and Aida, who weren’t the only ones feeling like Desdemona in a geometric death. The color palette could have been brilliant—a bright blue, gold, and orange appeared like sigh of relief in a simple gradient screen in the last act (see photograph below by Lynn Lane). Though the backdrop was framed by those pesky triangles, it hinted at what this set could have achieved. With such strong singers and Verdi’s masterly score, this production didn’t need flashy sets.
Abounding in symmetry, Aida balances on a delicate operatic scale. The phrases are even eight and sixteen bar passages without much leeway; the libretto of Aida’s striking Act III aria is two-fold, breaking with the traditional couplet writing and instead returning in rounds to “O patria mia.” A critic who saw the original Cairo production wrote “No one who concerns himself seriously with art has failed to notice in Aida a strange duality.” It is, then, incredible to overturn this inherent balance. Aida’s renown relies on its magnificent music. A pity this production’s overworked sets tip the scale to outweigh Verdi’s brilliant composition.
Houston Grand Opera’s Aida runs Oct 18 – Nov 9. For tickets and more information, visit its website here.