Reviewed by James Karas
The Glimmerglass Festival is located as far away from the hubbub of war and religious conflict as one can imagine. The rolling hills and meadows by Lake Otsego, near Cooperstown, New York are a long way from the murderous wars of the Middle East.
The Festival’s Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello has decided to bring contemporary issues to the stage of the Glimmerglass Festival’s Alice Busch Opera Theatre by placing Verdi’s Aida in a war-torn setting and producing the politically-charged Lost in the Stars about South African racism.
When the curtain goes up on Aida we hear startling gunshots as soldiers rush on the stage and fall on the ground. The setting according to Verdi may be the Egyptian Royal Palace at Memphis, but in Zambello’s staging it is a bombed building. The soldiers carry semi-automatics and there are computers presumably used to prepare for war.
Flags are waved patriotically and the Ethiopian prisoners captured by the victorious Egyptians are clearly Muslims. We have a full fledged Middle East conflict with patriotism, religious differences and mistreatment if not torture of prisoners all weaved into Verdi’s opera which is more of a love story than a tale of national conflict.
The Ethiopian princess Aida is sung by soprano Michelle Johnson. She has a sensuous and expressive voice and gives a superb performance. She invests “Ritorna Vincitor”, for example, with passion and drama capturing her dilemma between loyalty to country and to love. Equally effective is her “O Patria mia”, full of the sense of loss and longing for her homeland.
The athletic and muscle-bound tenor Noah Stewart sings Radames. From his opening aria “Celeste Aida” to the end when he is tied to a gurney, he is vocally splendid. I thought he was a bit awkward in his movements on stage but other than that he makes a first rate Radames.
Princess Amneris plays second banana to Aida. She loves Radames but he does not care for her. Zambello has made the eternal triangle more interesting by giving us a very attractive Amneris. In the hands of mezzo soprano Daveda Karanas, this Amneris is beautiful and alluring and fully worthy of Radames’s love. She is no unattractive duckling chasing the heroic general. Karanas gives an outstanding performance in the role both in characterization and vocal prowess.
Bass-baritone Phillip Gay made a fine impression as the King. He exuded regal authority and vocal power even though he is a young man. Very good work, indeed.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens is a big-voiced singer and did fine work as Amonasro and kudos go to Joseph Barron as Ramfis, Lenora Green as the Priestess and Clay Hilley as the Messenger.
The costumes by Bibhu Mohapatra were not uniformly successful. The khaki and belts suggesting soldiers at war anywhere in the Middle East presented no issue. The King was dressed in what appeared a more pharaohic costume. When she first appears Aida seems to be wearing a bridal gown. When the Ethiopian prisoners are brought in, you realize that her dress is in line with her countrywomen but by that time you have already scratched your head about her appearance.
Aida is a big opera and I have seen productions where small zoos were brought on stage for the Triumphal March. Zambello did not bring any animals on stage, thank goodness.
In the small Alice Busch Theater there may be concern about producing the grandiose parts of the opera. The outstanding Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Nader Abbassi had no difficulty bringing the rafters down as they say. Both the intimate and the grand part of the work stood out in a rousing and splendid night at the opera.
Aida by Giuseppe Verdi opened on July7 and will be performed eleven times until August 25, 2012 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org