Pipe Dream

Seattle Opera hits Verdi’s Nile on the head.

Apparently, the last time Seattle Opera did Verdi's Aida, in 1992, it didn't go over so well. It was a high-concept production—as I understand it, inspired by an inquiry into the place of Egyptology in European culture at the time of the opera's composition, 1871. It was legendarily unpopular with purists (which Aida fans tend to be), and that explains why, this time, SO has put phrases like "classic Egyptian style" all over its ads and PR material, doing everything short of hiring a skywriter to assure audiences that this summer's Aida isn't a repeat of the previous debacle.And the new production, which opened Saturday, is indeed traditional, with hieroglyphics and sideways-walking gods covering practically every flat surface in Michael Yeargan's set, and lavish, get-your-money's-worth costumes by Peter J. Hall that stop just short of glitz. Robert Wierzel's extraordinary lighting design blends it all together, the desert pastels and the color and gilt of the outfits. It's all tremendously beautiful.One thing in particular fans relish about Aida is the Act 2 Triumphal Scene, in which the Egyptians display the spoils of war; opera companies either pull out all the stops here or don't bother doing the piece in the first place. SO's staging starts out a little logy; picks up when the dozen-member ballet sequence begins (I found Donald Byrd's extremely busy choreography odd and captivating, but in the interest of fair reportage, my companions both loathed it); and ends in a sonic blaze even more intoxicating than the color-drenched stage.By the time he composed Aida, Verdi was a seasoned theater professional without peer (and he still doesn't have one). He must have hated the tenor who created the role of the Egyptian general Radames, because he gave him an entrance aria that's difficult in just about every way possible: It's lyrical, where the rest of Radames' music calls for thrusting martial heroism, and full of phrases that reach upward and end on high notes rather than arching comfortably. The aria concludes on a soft high B-flat which Verdi, had text-speak been around back then, would have marked with the dynamic pp–lol! Our Radames, the barrel-chested Antonello Palombi, meets the challenge (his solution to the B-flat issue is to swell from soft to loud and down again). He sounds good here and powerful in the rest of the show.Verdi throws a similar curve to the title role. A handmaiden in Pharaoh's court, Aida is concealing both her love for Radames and the fact that she's actually an abducted Ethiopian princess. (As SO supertitlist Jonathan Dean puts it, the whole opera's about people with secrets who reveal them at highly inopportune moments.) The lead soprano is expected to keep her light under a bushel and play submissive most of the show, which Lisa Daltirus manages touchingly. Daltirus is especially poignant during the clash with her father Amonasro—youthful and virile as sung by Charles Taylor—who expects Aida, for the sake of their home country, at war with Egypt, to betray Radames by worming battle plans out of him.Coming between soprano and tenor is Amneris, Pharaoh's daughter, one of the great juicy mood-swinging roles for mezzo-sopranos. Unlike other Italian diva parts—say, Tosca or Norma—which seem collated from emotional checklists (make sure the star gets to do a little of everything), Amneris comes off as a very real woman. Reading this summer's Hollywood hype, you might get the impression that moral ambiguity was invented by Christopher Nolan in his Dark Knight script, but Verdi got there earlier. As played, explosively, by Stephanie Blythe, with a gorgeous, elemental, hall-filling voice, the role's tragic descent from imperiousness to heartbreak—from hissable to sympathetic—is as affecting as that of the two lovers'.Blythe's remorseful solo scene in Act 4 is stunning, and would make a satisfying evening itself. Not just a set of pipes, Blythe has a way of projecting emotion through a musical line, as if each phrase were a loosed arrow hitting a bull's-eye on the last note. I found her Act 1 confrontation with Aida a bit genteel, but after I saw/heard/felt her encounter with Radames in Act 4, as the two lions hurled themselves at each other, I wondered if Blythe had earlier been restraining herself so as not to blow Daltirus into the pit.gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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