The Review is In

Brilliant singing outshines kitschy costumes and stodgy staging in HGO's Aïda

Brilliant singing outshines kitschy costumes in HGO's Aïda

Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with HGO chorus and supers
Houston Grand Opera's production of Aida with HGO chorus and supers Photo by © Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Riccardo Massi as Radames and Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida
A scene from Houston Grand Opera' production of Aida with Riccardo Massi as Radames and Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida Photo by © Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida and Dolora Zajick as Amneris
Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida and Dolora Zajick as Amneris in Houston Grand Opera's production of Aida Photo by © Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Alin Anger as Ramfis and HGO chorus and supers
Alin Anger as Ramfis with HGO chorus and supers in Houston Grand Opera production of Aida Photo by © Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Riccardo Massi as Radames
Houston Grand Opera's Aida with Riccardo Massi as Radames Photo by © Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Dolora Zajick as Amneris and Ain Anger as Ramfis
Dolora Zajick as Amneris and Ain Anger as Ramfis in Houston Grand Opera's production of Aida Photo by © Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida
Houston Grand Opera's production of Aida with Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida Photo by © Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with HGO chorus and supers
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Riccardo Massi as Radames and Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida and Dolora Zajick as Amneris
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Alin Anger as Ramfis and HGO chorus and supers
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Riccardo Massi as Radames
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Dolora Zajick as Amneris and Ain Anger as Ramfis
Houston Grand Opera Verdi's Aida with Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida

Surveillance. Why does it always feel like the Eye of Horus is upon you?

Maybe it’s because you’re just another victim of human trafficking. You can’t find a way out. There’s this incredibly hot Egyptian guy. He’s a high-ranking soldier. You fight your desire, which conflicts with some vague obligation you feel to your homeland. And then some rich bitch claims he’s a traitor, that he’s revealed “intelligence” to the enemy. She hates you; you feel a strange mixture of contempt and pity towards her. Some priests sentence the hot Egyptian guy to death. What are you going to do?

Antonio Ghislanzoni’s libretto couldn’t be more relevant today.And more than 140 years after the Cairo premiere, Giuseppe Verdi's brilliant score is still captivating.

 “I fear for my poor country, myself, and for you,” Aïda sings to her improbable lover Radames in the opera’s first act. It can’t be easy portraying the heroine of what might seem like a hopelessly old-fashioned spectacle for contemporary audiences. Antonio Ghislanzoni’s libretto, however, couldn’t be more relevant today (some attribute the opera’s actual scenario to either French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette or the Italian composer and librettist  Temistocle Solera) with its focus on war, love, deception, patriotism and surveillance. And more than 140 years after the Cairo premiere, Giuseppe Verdi’s brilliant score is still captivating, even if it is musically secondary to some of his clear masterpieces, such as Otello and Falstaff.

I’ve seen Aïda staged more than a few times, and yes, I’ve seen it offered with a cast of thousands and with parades of live camels, zebras and elephants. I’ve seen it outdoors and even once in a civic center usually reserved for ice hockey. But I haven’t seen a version more immersed in absolute kitsch than Houston Grand Opera’s current one with scenic and costume design by Zandra Rhodes. This co-production with English National Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Norwegian National Opera opens HGO’s current season.

Stellar singing

Let me be clear, right off the bat: The singing is stellar. Italian tenor Riccardo Massi is a sexy, pigeon-chested Radames who packs a punch with every note. His voice blends beautifully in the opera’s numerous duets and ensembles. You really shouldn’t miss this performance, his HGO debut.

The duet these two artists deliver as they die in each other’s arms in the finale is gold-standard. 

Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska in the lead role (also her HGO debut) is a singer of great taste, often understated but pitch-perfect in every aria. Friday night, I was one of many audience members who were overcome with emotion at her piercing, pianissimo high notes. The duet these two artists deliver as they die in each other’s arms in the finale is gold-standard.

American Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as Amneris is a bit of an upstager (her voice does not blend well into the ensemble passages), but she has a glorious instrument, as she demonstrated in last season’s Il trovatore. She performed this role at HGO as early as 1987, and again in 2007, and her experience is evident, even if she struggled to navigate Rhodes’ hefty costume and spent far too much time wringing her hands instead of actually acting.  

Eye-popping costumes

In program notes, production director Jose Maria Condemi describes Zandra Rhodes’s costumes and set designs as “lavish and eye-popping.” I’ll agree that they are eye-popping, especially in their gratuitous use of the Eye of Horus, but often to the point of visual fatigue. Lavish they are not; garish is more apt. Purple, turquoise, and orange DayGlo paint were lovely under the blacklight when you were decorating your dorm that freshman year, but they wear heavy through the fourth act of this Aïda. Worse, nothing visual seems to make particular sense, even if Rhodes claims to have “researched” her designs on a trip to Egypt.

Purple, turquoise, and orange DayGlo paint were lovely under the blacklight when you were decorating your dorm that freshman year, but they wear heavy through the fourth act of this Aïda.

My notes from the performance contain phrases such as, “priests enter wearing radioactive raincoats,” and “Ethiopian chorus seems to have stumbled in from community theater performance of Turandot.”

Rhodes’s pleated floor-length skirts for the men are nice – when they walk, especially as part of the chorus, it seems as if they are floating across the stage. But the few opulent costumes are dominated by the loud vulgarity of the set designs, which crowd everything and everyone.

The production lacks significant direction from Condemi as well.  Projection is of the “I walk here, I walk there” variety, meaning that the blocking is stodgy and the characters are endlessly pacing rather than successfully conveying any direct emotion. The large cast is often framed symmetrically, with the action played directly at the audience, in the manner of a television variety show.

I have never been happy that ballet and opera parted ways long ago. I am always thrilled when they come back together like old friends. Verdi’s ballet sequences for Aïda are thoughtfully choreographed here by Houston’s own Dominic Walsh and danced beautifully by members of his company.