Theatre Review: “Aida”
The Virginia Opera’s premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida was a glorious production in every dimension. As the moon begins to eclipse the dazzling sun and Amneris’ weeping prayers to the goddess Isis are hushed by the sound of the falling curtain, marking the end of Act IV, I genuinely shared the sentiments of my companion, a Richmond native, who said of the performance: “This is Virginia Opera at its grandest.”
The story is about Radames (a strong Gustavo Lopez Manzitti), captain of the Egyptian Guard, whose love for Aida (an emotionally powerful Mary Elizabeth Williams), a captured Ethiopian princess and slave to Amneris (a dynamic and harrowing Jeniece Golbourne, who has a bold lower range), may jeopardize Ancient Egypt’s national security. They long to flee the state terror and cultural oppression surrounding them. The continental warfare and racial xenophobia between Ancient Egypt and Ethiopia can’t compromise the romance between these two determined lovers.
Nathan Stark as the King of Egypt and Fikile Mvinjelwa as the King of Ethiopia project regal, noble voices. Ashraf Sewailam as Ramphis, the high priest of Egypt, propels his calculating characterization with a full, tenacious voice.
Lillian Groag’s distinguished direction assembles a fresh, vigorous performance. Her work of art, painted against the subtly beautiful, minimalist set that scenic designer Erhard Rom constructs into a geometry of pyramids, steers us into the capricious world of wrought-iron antiquity. Not even the flowing coolness of the Nile River is immune to the heat of Egyptian political machinations under Groag’s focused vision.
All the elements of the drama are legible on stage. Under the accomplished musical direction of John Demain, the orchestra unleashes the brass euphony of war in Act 1, the solemnity of prayer in Act II and the soothing stir of death in Acts III and IV. Lighting designer Kendall Smith makes use of three hieroglyphic colors: teal, gold and red. Notice how he distinguishes the Egyptians in gilded gold, representing their military victory and superiority, while he brushes the Ethiopians in teal, symbolizing their enslavement and torment. His model of colors infused with Rom’s set design is miraculous. Costume designer Martha Hally dresses the cast in lush, ancient attire.
Not all is sublime with the production. In Act 1 Scene 1, Amneris confirms her suspicion that Radames is in love with Aida, but her fury is drowned out by Williams’ robust soprano voice, which also mutes Manzitti’s tenor in “Vieni, o diletta, appressati.” Furthermore, while Groag’s interpretive strategy downplays the spectacle element to advance the drama, when we arrive at the iconic Act II triumphant march we are witness to a dancing pantheon of Egyptian deities dressed in, what could be best described as, burqas with cheap-looking holographic, sequenced masks. The effect was underwhelming for a scene that has gained admiration in popular culture.
Despite these minor imperfections, the originality of Groag’s production was marvelous. Virginia Opera’s inaugural partnership with the Richmond Ballet was phenomenal and filled in all of Verdi’s musical gaps. The libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni ends with a valediction from Radames entombed: “Our wandering souls fly to the light of eternal day.” This performance, too, carried me on its wings into a heavenly bliss.
5 out of 5 Stars
“Aida” runs through October 23rd, 2011 at Richmond CenterStage. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.vaopera.org/. Photo by David Rolston.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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