In love with death: Houston Grand Opera's suffocating Aida spares no one, pulls off all-time great exit
The opening of an opera season is the time to make a great entrance. But sometimes we remember best the drama of a great exit.
Take Giuseppe Verdi's ever-popular Aida, which kicks of Houston Grand Opera's 2013-14 season at the Wortham Theater Center Friday night. Set amidst a conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, Aida features lovers first thrown together and then ripped apart by war.
At the end of the opera, the star-crossed duo — Ethiopian princess Aida and the Egyptian war commander Radamès — suffocate in a tomb together as Aida's rival for the love of Radamès, the Egyptian princess Amneris weeps and prays in the temple above.
Radamès enters the darkness happy in the thought that his lover has escaped. He finds, instead, she has slipped into the tomb, more eager to die with him than to live without him. The two swing one of Verdi's sweetest arias, "O terra, addio" or "Farewell, oh Earth" as their air runs out.
Now that's an exit.
Here's Placido Domingo and Dolora Zajick in the Met's Emmy-winning production from 1989:
Zajick will be remembered as the magnificent Azucena in HGO's recent production of Il Trovatore and will reprise the role of Amneris in this year's Aida, which she performed previously in 2007.
Of the many marvelous versions of "O terra, addio" available just a few clicks away online, I found myself captivated by Salvatore Licitra and Nina Stemme:
Stemme triumphed last season at the HGO in Tristan and Isolde in one of the greatest operatic endings. Foiled at every turn, the lovers are united only in death. Thus the term liebestod, or love death, refers to the end of Tristan and more broadly to the way opera is more than a little in love with death.
Tristan ends intimately with its troubled pair, but Wagner was not one to disappoint the viewer hankering for a bigger bang at the end. After all, how many operas end with the world-ending death of the gods, as does Götterdämmerung, the four part of his great Ring cycle?
Here's Iréne Théorin as Brünnhilde, riding her steed into the pyre of the dead hero Siegfried:
Clearly immolation has its appeal, as endings go. YouTube user Maestro Wenarto couldn't resist recreating his own fiery cataclysm, complete with shouted lyrics and a public bonfire:
Götterdammerung is literally earth-shattering. Other operas may not reach for a cosmic scope yet they still prefer not to be outdone in their emphatic, gruesome endings. Alban Berg's 1937 Lulu ends not with a reunion of lovers or even with a liebestod but with Lulu murdered by Jack the Ripper. Francois Poulenc's 1956 Dialogues of the Carmelites closes with a convent full of nuns executed by guillotine.
What could possibly follow that? Suddenly the tragic end of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, with Tosca leaping to her death, seems like nothing at all.
Aida returns to the HGO stage with more than just a great ending. Liudmyla Monastyrska makes her HGO debut as Aida alongside Riccardo Massi and Issachah Savage, who split the role of Radames. Antonio Fogliani conducts a production with lights by James Michael Clark, sets and costumes by Zandra Rhodes, and choreography by Houston's own Dominic Walsh.
Aida may be an opera of great endings but its appearance yet again on the Houston Grand Opera also marks the memory of the company's inaugural season in the recently completed Wortham Theater Center. Here's that 1987 production with Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo, whose final love song begins around 2:40:00.
Not unlike Wagner's Tristan, Verdi's masterpiece ends with equal parts sorrow and love, sweetness and longing. Like a good opera, a good ending is one you never want to end.