A Modern ‘Aida’

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Morris Robinson as Ramfis in Washington National Opera's "Aida." Photo by Scott Suchman. Courtesy WNO.

History has it that at some point in time, on any given night or day, “Aida” — composer Giuseppe Verdi’s grand 19th-century opera and spectacle of star-crossed lovers in war-torn, ancient Egypt — is being performed somewhere, with or without elephants.

Along with “Carmen” and “La bohème” and “Madame Butterfly,” “Aida” is one of the most performed operas in the repertoire, a category for which the Metropolitan owns the lead. It is for opera lovers — and you know how lovers can get — a sacred icon, and you know what happens when you mess with an icon. People will whisper, people will talk, maybe not during the production, but certainly at intermission and afterwards.

If you go to the current season-opening Washington National Opera production of “Aida,” you will carry away some notions of just what makes opera so special, why its loyal audiences carry around with them both devotion and not a few alarms about the changing world of classical music, and opera in particular. You’ll get some ideas about the debates roiling in that world, what’s grand about grand opera and also a little bit about what troubles the current state of this art.

Just look around you and listen. People will talk. This production, directed with verve by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, and conducted with a deft feel for the emotional content of Verdi’s music by Evan Rogister, creates a buzz of its own. That’s because, among other things, it features and promotes the art of Los Angeles street artist Marquis Duriel Lewis, aka Retna, which almost takes the shape of another form of visual music, at once difficult to initially embrace but powerfully moving in its charismatic punctuations of setting and ideas. It has a cast from leads to chorus to dancers dressed in modern outfittings: camouflage soldier outfits and bright white officer uniforms, indicating 21st-century warriors and war.

You can see how this might be unsettling for people used to more traditional stagings of this beloved opera. Where, in fact, is ancient Egypt, never mind the elephants? You could hear this kind of talk in the aisles at intermission — puzzlement at Retna’s art, questions about what to make of the modern setting and sets in terms of today’s world.

As for Retna’s art, the hieroglyphic-like art stirs up ancient dust which adds to the production.

Besides, in the end, as that sage philosopher in Casablanca once said, “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory,” or as Aida herself would have it, “ecstasy and bliss.”

Big and epic status as “Aida” achieves with its victory march, its dancing, budding soldiers, the energetic choreography of Jessica Lang, “Aida” is actually a love triangle, and the opera could pass for, as Zambello suggests, a chamber piece.

The people who matter the most in this tragedy are Radames, the rising young military leader, who’s been picked by the King of Egypt to lead his nation against the Ethiopian forces of its implacable king Amonasro. Radames is ambitious, hungry for glory and in love with Aida, the daughter of Amonasro, a secret only Radames knows. Victorious, he’s also been pledged to Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian king, in love with Radames as only a woman obsessed can be. The three struggle with love — Radames-Aida, Ameris-Radames, Aida-Radames — all of them torn by duty to family and country.

There is also Ramfis, the sinister high priest who holds real power in Egypt. The Egyptians win, Radames is the hero he longs to be and frees the defeated enemy, among whom, secretly, is Aida’s father, who plots to rise again.

And there is Verdi.

The music, the singing (there are two casts) is when all is said and sung, focused in solos, in duets and even among the three leads, all of whom carry the most important presence in the opera house: our human hearts, our susceptible embrace of music and singing carrying the day. The approach here seems not to be to overwhelm with range and upper reaches, but to ambush you musically with the dilemma presented by the horrible choices that pit desire, undying love, against shame, loyalty, jealousy and duty.

The three combatants of love are in a trap, something that Retna’s designs illustrate.

Tamara Wilson in the title role has a rich soprano voice; it moves without loss to panic, pain, stubbornness and the hopelessly-in-love aspects of her predicament while Ekaterina Semenchuk is a full-voiced, vengeful presence as Amneris.

But in the trio, it’s tenor Yonghoon Lee who carries the day, not just with a soaring voice but how he puts it into service of the character.

When all three or two are on stage, you can see the quicksilver changes in their choices, the deep desire of what they want, the embrace of love and of the demands made by their situation.

When Radames and Aida are joined together in coming death, accompanied by a repentant Amneris, the slowly softening song and singing headed toward a sigh is the sound of not so much sentiment as three hearts breaking.

As for me, when the curtain closed, a gentleman across the aisle from me grabbed my shoulder, smiled and said, “Great show, right.”

All discussion aside, I second that emotion.

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