Cher Public

Celeste graffiti

I see flags, I hear bells, There's a parade in Memphis. Photo: Scott Suchman

I see flags, I hear bells, there’s a parade in Memphis. Photo: Scott Suchman

The reasoning behind putting on Aida over any other Verdi opera must be that if you put ancient Egypt onstage, sooner or later you’ll find Tutankhamen’s tomb. It has name recognition value and is a surefire box office reward, but now carries a promise of luxury and extravagance onstage that other operas allegedly don’t have. (Evidence: the man behind be who, before the performance started, asked “Is this the opera about the elephant?”) 

But Aida certainly has its longueurs, it’s no more poignant or universal in its messages than any of Giuseppe Verdi’s other middle period or mature works, and he certainly wrote more interesting characters. So, how do you pry Aida away from its Aïda-ness, especially if that Aida-ness is untenable? WNO provides, if not an inconsistent one, an answer.

In a well-contrasting pair of casts and an aesthetically-driven production that counts as one of the more successful by American opera’s most prominent jack (jill?) of all trades, Francesca Zambello, WNO opened its season on Saturday with a new-to-DC production of Verdi’s sandiest opera previously seen in San Francisco last fall with 2016 Richard Tucker Music Foundation award winner Tamara Wilson headlining as the titular “prisoner” (as the dreadful, sanitized translations would have it.)

In her first DC Aidas, Wilson brings her characteristic sharp-edged voice and delicacy of attack to a part she’s sung for several years. She sings the role, including both her arias, with visible introspection, thoughtful phrasing and dynamic, and gorgeously floated high notes, and she’s an earnest, if exclusively gloomy in this role, actress.

But her ample voice promises further rewards. Her excursions into heavier Verdi and Strauss have been well-received and she’ll take on Sieglinde under Gergiev in Paris next year. It’s a career to watch, but we knew that already. This milestone stands as an interesting counterpoint to Leah Crocetto’s highly communicative and more varied reading seen the following day.

Though Crocetto was more physically engaged onstage and the role gives opportunity to showcase her vocal thrust and dramatic urgency, especially in the two emotionally wrought arias, I got the impression that there wasn’t much more to see. We’ll see more of her vocal arsenal when she returns in the spring for Don Carlo, but if Wilson is going to titillate DC audiences with the promise of more and then not give it to them, then Crocetto ought to get a gimmick.

The pair of Radami each presented their own strengths and limitations. Wilson’s Radames, Yonghoon Lee, totes a large, forceful voice, but has grown staid as an actor, lost in squillo since my last hearing, and become increasingly mannered. During “Celeste Aida,” he’d scoop up to every phrase-ending f-note, the tone would go dull, and the vowel would completely flatten.

Not too different was Carl Tanner’s capable but leathery-sounding Radames on the second night. What’s worse, though, was that he blustered his way through the part looking like a dead-ringer for Mussolini in Anita Yavich’s almost uniformly unflattering costumes.

The Aidas found themselves well contrasted at every turn by their Amnerises, though. Ekaterina Semenchuk’s woolier voice stood in stark contrast to Wilson’s, though she declaimed practically the whole role and disappointingly appeared less engaged in every aspect than she does in her most recent turn in the role opposite Netrebko in Salzburg.

But while Semenchuk was mere petulance, Sunday’s Marina Prudenskaya was pure decadence and cruelty tethered to a true emotional arc. Prudenskaya’s distant, seductively dark voice and superior, slinky bearing onstage complemented Crocetto’s do-gooder Aida, and her relentless conviction elevated her every scene.

In the smaller parts, Morris Robinson was neither intelligible nor stylish as Ramfis, Gordon Hawkins cajoled with a sound more burnished than weathered as Amonasro, and Soloman Howard was authoritative and incisive as the King. In the pit, Evan Rogister consistently struck a balance between communicating the characteristic sweep of the score, maintaining propulsive tempi, and drawing some luxurious playing from the WNO Orchestra in conjunction with the WNO Chorus.

In an inspired move, Zambello drew in collaborating artists outside of opera and the results are mostly impressive. The calligraphic production designs, inspired by street artist Retna, are vaguely suggestive of a north-African locale and graciously frame Mark McCollough’s sensuous lighting and Michael Yeargan’s utilitarian sets. Jessica Lang’s thoughtful choreography (especially for the children) makes every one of the ballets just that.

Only the costumes, military uniforms for the men and racks of tie-dye caftans for the women, fall flat. And though the production, boasting over 100 people onstage, sometimes suffers from traffic control problems, Zambello is more hands-off on the storytelling of the piece than usual and the singers’ experience shines through as a consequence.

I’m not sure if my neighbor who started the afternoon in search of ivory was pleased with what he came back with, but the weekend yielded an earnest and thoughtfully considered reevaluation of Aida that didn’t sell it for spectacle and took every opportunity to be meaningfully provocative. And after two performances of Aida in 24 hours, I count that as a ritorno vincitor.

  • Porgy Amor

    But while Semenchuk was mere petulance, Sunday’s Marina Prudenskaya was pure decadence and cruelty tethered to a true emotional arc. Prudenskaya’s distant, seductively dark voice and superior, slinky bearing onstage complemented Crocetto’s do-gooder Aida, and her relentless conviction elevated her every scene.

    Without having seen either cast in this particular Aïda, Prudy gets my vote for the most interesting singer mentioned anywhere in this review. If I’d been deciding on which cast to see, I’d have gone to one with her, on the basis of past experience. It is good to see her in something on this side of the pond. She is all over the Berlin State Opera (apparently a Barenboim protégée), and lucky they are for it.

    Thanks for the double-cast overview.

    • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

      I have managed to see Marina Prudenskaya three times in the past decade, always in Wagner though never in Berlin: the Götterdämmerung Flosshilde in the Fura dels Baus production at Maggio Musicale Firenze, 2009; Mary, Amsterdam 2010; and a brilliant Waltraute again in Götterdämmerung at Bayreuth on this night two weeks ago. She is getting better all the time; the good review here comes as no surprise.

    • CKurwenal

      More love from me for Prudenskaya -- she was the brilliant stand out in a not great ROH Trovatore.

  • Greg Freed

    And here I thought the plural was Radameese!

    Jeez, Carl Tanner already merited “leathery” a dozen years ago in OONY’s Fanciulla. Surprised to hear this assessment of Morris Robinson, who I’ve always found top notch.

    • Alex Baker

      I mean, I’m not going to say it’s NOT leathery, but per the Aida he did at Wolf Trap a few years back I am kind of down with the extra burly Radames CT serves up.

      Nice that they spread some wealth across both casts…great review, Harry!

  • manou

    I have lived in Egypt many years ago and can confidently report that not a single elephant has ever been seen there (except for a mangy specimen in a sadly decrepit zoo).

  • grimoaldo2

    So I just saw this and thought Semenchuk totally rocked Don’t agree that she was “merely petulant”. Beautiful voice, such a pleasure to hear live, great singing, real grandeur of utterance and gripping dramatic performance. I have seen her live once before in SF’s Luisa Miller and also in broadcasts and she is always terrific. She seemed thrilled by the ovation she got at her curtain call. kept blowing kisses to us and waving.Have not had time to listen to the Salzburg Aida yet.
    I have seen Tamara Wilson in several Verdi operas now and always enjoy her Verdi singing and I did tonight also. I think the person who said she can’t act and is fat was a bit mean, she is OK as an actor and yes she’s a little chubby but as someone who saw numerous performances by Rita Hunter, Sharon Sweet and Jane Eaglen I wouldn’t call her “fat”.She sang an E-flat at the end of the triumph scene! and all her singing was very good. But I still have Radvan’s stunning soft singing in the Nile scene in Paris last year in my ears I guess, just about the most sublimely beautiful singing I ever heard in my life and Wilson cannot really float the pianissimi that way. Still I certainly enjoyed hearing her and was glad to be there.
    You certainly had no trouble hearing Lee as Radames. my goodness that boy can sing loud, and he does. Loud, louder and loudest. I didn’t find it very interesting after a while. Still, the audience loved him.
    I didn’t enjoy anything about Gordon Hawkins’ Amonasro ,I’m afraid.A very worn voice with a terrible wobble, making very ugly sounds and nothing pleasant or interesting to look at or watch in his performance either. Awful. Seeing the praise Prudenskaya has received on this thread, I thought I might go again and see the second cast but Hawkins is in every performance and I am not sure I can sit through that again. Also I did not enjoy Leah Crocetto’s performance as Luisa Miller in SF with The Fab so that puts me off too. We’ll see.
    One of the best things about going to opera at Washington National Opera is seeing the terrific, slim young bass Solomon Howard. Wow oh wow is he something. He was the King and another excellent,sonorous bass Morris Robinson as Ramfis (I don’t get the negative comments about him in the review, but it was a different performance, maybe he was having an off night).
    The production had some fun elements,particularly the dancing (the production in Paris I saw last year with Radvan and Anita Rachvelishvili, superb, had grotesque cavortings going on in the dance sequences that I could not bear to watch) but I object to having Radames’ trial onstage. It is supposed to be offstage and you only hear his and Ramfis’ voices and the voices of the priests but only see Amneris. Verdi planned it that way and he knew what he was doing, it makes much more of an effect that way. Also I hate, hate, HATE it when they bring down a curtain while the music is still playing as they did at the end of the Nile scene and the Judgement Scene, that makes the audience applaud over the music and I want to hear the cymbals and the bass drum and the timpani going thump-thump-thump-thump, you only get the vibes in your body from that if you are there in person as opposed to a recording and if people are applauding it SPOILS it.
    I really love so much of the orchestral detail of this opera, hearing it live is such a treat, the fabulous stuff for the harp in many passages and also the counter melody on the trumpets in the Aida-Radames duet in the Nile scene when he is saying “I will win another battle and save the country and tell the King I love you and he will let us marry” and just in that little bit the trumpets are playing this great tune that I sometimes listen to twenty times in a row so it is wonderful to hear it live.
    An excellent night, Viva Verdi!