Saturday, October 22, 2011

Review: 'Aïda'

Virginia Opera
John DeMain conducting
Oct. 21, Richmond CenterStage

Verdi’s “Aïda” is one of the grandest spectacles in opera. When Virginia Opera announced that it would open its 2011-12 season with “Aïda,” one wondered whether it could pull it off, having as it does to tailor its productions to fit the smallish stages of its theaters in Norfolk and Richmond (its Fairfax venue is a bit larger), and to work within budget constraints that have led the company to mount sparely staged shows using recycled scenic elements.

Happily, it can, and has. This compact “Aïda” has the pageantry, grandeur and exoticism that Verdi intended. Its cast of dozens is outfitted and choreographed, its choristers sing, its orchestra plays, and its dancers and supernumeraries move, to belie their numbers. Its set is minimal yet monumental.

Stage director Lillian Groag, scenic designer Erhard Rom, costume designer Martha Hally, choreographer Malcolm Burn, chorusmaster Adam Turner and John DeMain, the veteran opera conductor brought in for this production, have conjured a small miracle in this “Aïda.” Burn and his dancers from the Richmond Ballet make especially good use of, and an especially big impression in, the tight space in which they have to work. The choreographer’s distillation of the story in the dance scene of Act 2 is a high point of this production.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is an excellent Aïda, projecting the intense but largely repressed passion of the Ethiopian slave girl for Radamés, the warrior who leads Egyptian forces against her people. Gustavo Lopez Manzitti proved less expressively nuanced as Radamés in the first of two Richmond performances; his “Celeste Aïda” sounded to come more from the throat than the heart.

Jeniece Golbourne conveys the spiteful vehemence of Amneris, the Egyptian princess who is Aïda’s rival for Radamés’ love, perhaps rather too well to fit into a love triangle, but quite effectively if the women’s rivalry is seen as a battle between love and possessiveness.

Nathan Stark, as the Egyptian king, and Ashraf Sewailam, as the high priest Ramphis, are suitably stentorian in voice and manner. Fikile Mvinjelwa, as Amonasro, the Ethiopian king and father of Aïda, weaves effectively between the character’s commanding and calculating roles in the drama.

DeMain, leading members of the Virginia Symphony, brings out both the passion and grandeur of Verdi’s orchestration and consistently complements the singers and dancers. Conducting opera is a special kind of work, especially in this show, and this man clearly has mastered the art.

The final performance of the production, at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, is sold out.