Washington National Opera opened its 2017-2018 season on Saturday evening with a visually stunning production of Aida. The director for Aida is WNO’s Artistic Director, Francesca Zambello, who first staged this production for the San Francesco Opera in 2016. The staging more than the singing sets this Aida apart from previous versions. The sets are highlighted by artistic works by contemporary street artist, RETNA, and these do give the scenes a foreign, Egyptian-past feel to them, both the painted sets and draperies. Aida is an opera that courts pageantry in addition to a focus on its theme of duty to one’s country complicating even further the central love triangle; a young warrior, Radames, is loved by both the daughter of the King of Egypt, Amneris, and a slave girl, Aida, who is also a princess captured from Ethiopia, an enemy country. The colorful costumes added to the regal atmosphere. The triumphant scene of victorious Egyptians walking back into the palace yard was staged effectively especially with the strong support of the music supplied by Verdi and the orchestra. The ballet scenes were beautiful and charming, including the ones with the very young dancers; kudos to choreographer Jessica Lang. I am not a fan of modernizing opera, but moving Aida into a later time period of an imaginary Egyptian kingdom seemed to work with the rest of the imagery. One could argue about whether the changes and updates enhance the telling of the story, but overall, I think the entertainment value of this staging is very high.
Left: Youth Dancers in Aida. Right: Kana Kimura, a dancer, Morris Robinson as Ramfis - the High Priest, and Yonghoon Lee as Radames. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.
Aida by composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni provides us music and arias that are among the best ever written. The WNO orchestra under conductor Evan Rogister sounded marvelous whether in tender moments, passionate moments, or moments of pageantry. The large chorus was also strong and sounded great, though on occasion perhaps overshadowing the lead singers just a bit. For musical pleasure of operas I have seen at the Kennedy Center in the last two years, I place Aida only behind last year’s WNO Ring Cycle.
Tamara Wilson as Aida, Yonghoon Lee as Radames, and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.
The singers were all excellent and for the most part gave us convincing characters. The diversity in casting was delightful. Yonghoon Lee’s tenor was impressive in power and timbre; his Celeste Aida aria displays both power and tenderness. His portrayal of a young leader eager to prove himself in battle for his homeland was convincing, though demonstrating his love for Aida was less so. Mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk’s portrayal of Amneris was spot on; and the beauty of her voice became clear in the latter portions of the opera. Soprano Tamara Wilson who played Aida has a lovely voice and sang beautifully. However, I had a problem with Ms. Wilson’s characterization of Aida, which lacked the fire I would expect of a princess forced into servitude of an enemy princess; I expected a portrayal of submission by restraint, not by nature. The supporting cast were all effective; Solomon Howard as the King of Egypt, Gordon Hawkins as Aida’s father, and Morris Robinson as the High Priest were fine singers and players. I personally wish Verdi had added an earlier scene between Radames and Aida to make their love more visceral for the audience, but he's the master, right?
Left: Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris and Yonghoon Lee as Radames (in background). Right: Tamara Wilson as Aida and Yonghoon Lee as Radames. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.
The artistry in the sets, dancing, music, and singing all make for an entertaining evening at the Kennedy Center. I found the drama to be slightly less effective for reasons noted above. The power of larger events to impact individual lives was convincingly demonstrated. At the end however, while I felt truly sad for Amneris though she had earned her tragedy, I was watching Aida and Radames, rather than feeling them; seeing them with sympathy, but not with tears in my eyes. Regardless - Go, enjoy.
The Fan Experience: Remaining performances with this cast are September 13, 16, 18, 21, and 23; remaining performances with Carl Tanner as Radames, Marina Prudenskaya as Amneris, and Leah Crocetto as Aida are September 15 and 17. The review by Anne Midgette in the Washington Post covers both sets of performers. The Kennedy Center uses the name of the artist, RETNA, in the all-caps version, but some critics use Retna (his real name is Marquis Duriel Lewis); I can only guess that among professional journalists typing a proper name in all caps is grammatical heresy. See the sidebar for links to professional reviews. Not sure how long it will last, but parking inside the Kennedy Center is now $2 cheaper. (at $20) The RETNA-designed mug in the gift shop is expensive at $20, but nothing compared to the RETNA-inspired scarf at $300. I bought the mug; nice scarf though. I left Tyson’s Corner at 6 pm headed to the Kennedy Center for the 7 pm opera, a thirty minute trip, door to seat. A traffic tie up somewhere not on I-66 nevertheless had traffic at a standstill on I-66 about three miles before reaching the Roosevelt bridge. I made it to my seat at 7:02, a few minutes later and I would have had to wait to be seated. In the Washington area, planning for traffic delays is de rigueur, even on the weekend. Fortunately, snack and dining facilities in the Kennedy Center are excellent if you make it ahead of time, and then there is the gift shop. If you can get there really early, at least an hour ahead (check the website), you can take in the pre-opera insights talk. Take note: The September 23 performance will be simulcast to the the big screen at Washington Nationals Park for the free event, Opera in the Outfield.