No pyramids along the Nile needed for Houston Opera’s soaring “Aida”

Sat Feb 01, 2020 at 2:11 pm
By Steven Brown
Tamara Wilson and Russell Thomas in Houston Grand Opera’s “Aida.” Photo: Lynn Lane

Forget the ancient-Egypt imagery. Director Phelim McDermott skips all that in his staging of Verdi’s Aida and puts the story’s love-triangle essence front and center — literally.

In McDermott’s production, which Houston Grand Opera brought to Wortham Theater Center on Friday, the confrontations between the slave, her sweetheart and her rival for his affections play out largely at the front of the stage. That lets the cast’s exuberantly full-throated principals — the production’s most potent ingredient — deliver the music’s passions to the audience at point-blank range. 

Minutes after entering, soprano Tamara Wilson’s Aida let fly with the first of the night’s many surges of soaring melody, easily surmounting the first-scene trio’s agitated crossplay between Russell Thomas’ Radamès and Melody Moore’s Amneris. 

From there, Wilson’s voice only gained in gleam and security. Her singing put across the thrust of Aida’s outcries in “Ritorna vincitor” and the weight of her laments in “O patria mia”; it sailed out above the Triumphal Scene’s sonic flood.

And in the last two acts, HGO studio alumnus Wilson spun out Verdi’s lyricism in a sweet, luminous pianissimo whenever Aida looked back to her verdant homeland or ahead to an idyllic afterlife. Her part of the Tomb Scene duet floated out with an airiness that evoked a soul already making its journey aloft.

Tenor Thomas, as Radamès, also started with vigor — practically a requirement for a role whose big aria comes right after the curtain opens. He launched into the introduction to “Celeste Aida” with a ring and enthusiasm that befitted a warrior envisioning glory to come. The aria itself began with tinges of the same ardor. 

Yet Thomas also brought the aria — which is a love song, after all — softer turns of a kind that few tenors muster. He even gave a gentle turn to the climactic high B-flat.

Thomas’s voice may not have had the sheer heft of Wilson’s — hints of strain occasionally came through — but he brought fire and vitality to the ensembles’ confrontations, helping keep the story’s tensions boiling. And in the Tomb Scene, his touches of softness — again, even reaching up to high B-flat — complemented Wilson’s.

As Amneris, Moore offered a soprano’s take on a role that typically goes to mezzo-soprano.

When the imperious princess’s threats and curses took Moore’s voice into its middle and lower ranges, Moore couldn’t match the impact and ampleness of a red-blooded mezzo. But she nevertheless found ways to put across Amneris’s pride and turmoil — sometimes through bite rather than fullness.

And Moore’s soprano slant paid off in its own ways. At the start of Act 2, Moore gave an especially cozy turn to Amneris’s sinuous phrases invoking Radamès; when Amneris pretended to be Aida’s friend, Moore’s light, conversational delivery made the pretense convincing.

And whenever the music took off above the staff, her voice welled up with a vibrancy and focus that equalled Wilson’s. Moore helped generate the ensembles’ electricity, and her abandon enabled the Judgment Scene to give Aida’s theatrics a walloping climax. 

In the short but pivotal role of Amonasro, Aida’s father, baritone Reginald Smith Jr. boasted a burly, resonant voice that quickly captured the aura of a king and warrior. But in the Aida-Amonasro duet, as the father began cajoling his daughter to get Radames to reveal a secret, Smith’s Amonasro came out with softer tones to salute the beauty of their homeland.

Bass Peixin Chen’s big, sonorous voice captured all the grandeur of the high priest Ramfis. McDermott’s decision to put Ramfis, Radames and the chorus onstage during the Judgment Scene let Chen add an extra wallop.

Bass Musa Ngqungwana didn’t have as steady and sonorous a voice as Chen’s, but his King of Egypt added impact to the rituals. At the other vocal extreme, soprano Dorothy Gal brought gleam and spaciousness to the priestess’ invocations.

The HGO Chorus not only contributed a big, grand sound to the Triumphal Scene, but the women sang sweetly in their scene with Amneris. And the men brought dignity, spaciousness and weight to the priests’ music — even when they sang sotto voce.

On the podium, HGO artistic director Patrick Summers emphasized the score’s sweep and dynamism — to the point that, in the most explosive spots, Thomas’s Radames and Smith’s Amonasro had to race through words so quickly that their voices hardly cut through. 

But Summers also made room for the singers to savor Verdi’s lyricism. And the HGO Orchestra contributed some translucent tone-painting as well as Triumphal Scene fireworks.

McDermott, associate director Joe Austin and the designers jettisoned Aida’s typical imagery of ancient Egypt. Some scenes played out in front of the curtain, with nothing to suggest time or place. When the curtain parted, Tom Pye’s sets gave the temples the strength of geometric simplicity.  

Costume designer Kevin Pollard mixed and matched time periods. He based the priests’ outfits on present-day business suits, capping them off with gilded shoulders and headgear; the priests’ first gathering suggested, if anything, a meeting of an American masonic lodge. 

When Amonasro and his fellow war prisoners appeared in the Triumphal Scene, they continued the modern-day motif with their uniforms of olive drab and camouflage — with nothing to suggest the libretto’s Ethiopia or any particular country. 

But the Egyptian soldiers’ uniforms harked back more to 19th-century Europe. And Pollard’s costumes for Amneris and her attendants added a fantasy element, including a glittering gold gown for the princess in the Triumphal Scene.

McDermott’s Triumphal Scene included a note of somberness: The procession began with four warriors’ coffins, which remained onstage throughout the scene. 

But Jorrell Lawyer-Jefferson’s vigorous, angular choreography for 10 dancers enlivened the celebrations, and his more ritualistic movement colored the temple scenes: In one, the dancers emerged from the Priestess’s billowing robes, then hailed Ramfis while lying on their backs.

And the dancers sometimes wielded long spans of silk, worked into the choreography by Basil Twist. Even with ancient Egypt out of the picture. HGO’s Aida offered spectacle galore.

Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida runs through Feb. 16 at the Wortham Theater Center. (Mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin plays Amneris beginning Feb. 11.); 713-228-6737.

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