Fine singing vies with baffling production in WNO’s militaristic “Aida”

Sun Sep 10, 2017 at 10:00 am

Tamara Wilson stars in the title role of Verdi’s “Aida” at Washington National Opera. Photo: Scott Suchman

Washington National Opera is going big for the start of its new season. The company opened Saturday night with a new production of Verdi’s Aida, its first since 2003. For this grandest of all grand operas, director Francesca Zambello has assembled a fine cast, augmented by gorgeous ballet choreography by Jessica Lang. The only other thing she needed was a sumptuous Egyptian production, but there WNO’s artistic director faltered, once again.

Soprano Tamara Wilson was in radiant voice as Aida, singing with confidence and control throughout the evening. Wilson’s formidable power carried her voice over the ensembles and vast chorus numbers. If not always commanding the greatest sympathy with her acting, in the crucial tender moments of devastating pathos, she had a shimmering, perfectly placed pianissimo tone, with just a slight shakiness on the soft high notes at the end of “O patria mia.”

Yonghoon Lee was a less subtle presence as Radamès, both vocally and dramatically. The South Korean tenor often hammered out his part with ringing high notes, which were thrilling, but the characterization was stiff and wooden. An exception was the Act I showpiece, “Celeste Aida,” where Lee took pains to soften the final syllables of each phrase, set somewhat perversely by Verdi on the highest notes, with delicate and lovely results.

The dramatic void was filled by Ekaterina Semenchuk’s poisonous Amneris, who gave the role a Bette Davis-like spitefulness. The Russian mezzo-soprano deployed the same tar-thick chest voice heard during her visits here previously with the Mariinsky Opera, and the high notes were laser-focused. Semenchuk’s varied repertory of sneers and scorching side-eyes provided further entertainment, as she exulted in Aida’s humiliation.

Audiences, especially a more traditionalist one, will be disappointed by Zambello’s staging, which comes here after opening last year at San Francisco Opera. Although not as clumsy as her Iraq War updating of this opera at Glimmerglass in 2012, it is also set in an unspecified modern period. The costumes (designed by Anita Yavich) and the bland concrete-like sets (Michael Yeargan) suggest a war-torn zone somewhere in the contemporary world, at times South America or the Middle East, at others China or Japan.

Yonghoon Lee is Radames in WNO’s “Aida.” Photo: Scott Suchman

The only visual flair comes from the designs by RETNA, the pseudonym of street artist Marquis Lewis. Known for graffiti art in Los Angeles, he is in vogue with fashion companies and even with pop musicians like Justin Bieber for album covers. His script-based abstraction, also seen on some large mural-like boxes in the Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations, added something like hieroglyphics or Chinese calligraphy to an otherwise dull, ugly staging.

The best part of the production was the striking choreography of Jessica Lang for the ballet scenes. In Act I, five men had a beautiful dance, partially hidden by thick fog, followed by the dance of a single priestess in a golden-winged costume. The nine dancers from Lang’s company, five men and four women, were also the best part of an otherwise underwhelming triumphal march scene in Act II.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine what Lang was thinking with the call to add some cutesy dances for a troupe of children in the first two acts. Any menace in the production’s  military society–wherever it was–was instantly undone by the Polichinelle antics of these dancers, in their tiny military uniforms.

An excellent trio of low male voices filled out the cast, especially the hulking menace of Morris Robinson’s Ramfis, incarnating Verdi’s anti-clerical criticism in the portrayal of the hypocritcal Egyptian priesthood. Soloman Howard brought an icy edge to the role of the Pharaoh, while Gordon Hawkins was a dignified  presence as Amonasro, Aida’s father.

Conductor Evan Rogister, announced as a substitute over the summer, replaced the originally scheduled Michael Christie.  Rogister’s gestures were somewhat less frantic than in his previous WNO outings with Moby-Dick or Carmen. But he had similar problems holding the textures together, especially in exposed moments like the Act I prelude and in the large choral numbers, where the chorus, in otherwise excellent vocal form, tended to rush ahead of the beat.

Aida runs through September 23. Tamara Wilson and Yonghoon Lee perform as Aida and Radames September 13, 16, 18, 21, and 23; Ekaterina Semenchuk will also sing Amneris on all those days except September 21. 

Leah Crocetto, Carl Tanner, and Marina Prudenskaya perform September 15 and 17; in addition, Marina Prudenskaya will sing Amneris on September 21.

The final performance will be simulcast to Nationals Park for the annual Opera in the Outfield event.; 202-467-4600.

Photo: Scott Suchman

3 Responses to “Fine singing vies with baffling production in WNO’s militaristic “Aida””

  1. Posted Sep 10, 2017 at 12:37 pm by Laura Youens

    I gave up on Francesca Zambello several years ago, I’m sad to say. At least there were some good things to said about this production, but, as much as I love Verdi, I can’t make myself want to go to this version of Aida.

  2. Posted Sep 13, 2017 at 3:05 pm by Virginia Bland

    This was the worst production of Aida I have seen in 40 years.

  3. Posted Sep 17, 2017 at 9:28 am by Cheryl Washer

    Saw it last night — I had never seen this opera before (in fact this was my second live performance of any opera), and my spouse and I spent the entire intermission critiquing the set and the costumes (did no one look at the drawings together?). He’s a military historian and those pseudo uniforms really messed with him mind. The design overpowered the music. While we love us some Solomon Howard (I wish he had been cast as the High Priest so he had a larger role), we now know to avoid anything associated with Francesca Zambello.

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