Opera Review: AIDA (Lyric Opera Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on March 24, 2024

in Theater-Chicago


One of Verdi’s most beloved operas, Aida has all of the elements one would expect in a grand opera: rousing choruses, dramatic arias and duets, military marches, ballet dancing, massive spectacles, and exotic settings. This production delivers on all of these, but is unsatisfactory, nevertheless. And the dissatisfaction is not because of any major, obvious flaw. It’s more subtle than that. There is a lack of charisma in the two principal leads: Russell Thomas as Radamès and Michelle Bradley as Aida. There is distracting artwork by the trendy artist RETNA. And the costuming is very inconsistent, mixing modern and classical styles.

Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni pack an impressive amount of action into Aida, which runs for three hours, including one half-hour intermission, in this production. There are no dull moments, no lulls in the plot. Set in ancient Egypt, during a war with Ethiopia, Aida is a tragic story of enemies in love. Its eponymous heroine is an Ethiopian slave, daughter of the king. Both Aida and Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian king, are in love with Radamès, the leader of the Egyptian army. As a result of his success in war, the Egyptian king offers the hand of his daughter Amneris in marriage to Radamès, who is in love with Aida. When Aida convinces Radamès to betray Egypt in order to save her own people, he is condemned to death. Aida sneaks into the tomb in which Radamès is sealed and so shares his fate.

Russell Thomas and Michelle Bradley starred together in Tosca just two years ago and my judgment then applies equally well now. I described Michelle Bradley as “frankly disappointing”; of Russell Thomas, he “simply seemed tired.” Granted there isn’t a lot of interesting music for them to sing in the first two acts, but it didn’t feel like they really hit their stride until Act Three. They have some beautiful arias and duets there. And while Bradley sings just fine in terms of volume and technique, her tone is not the prettiest. But just as importantly, both Thomas’s and Bradley’s acting lacks drama and charisma; and this undermines the drama of the production as a whole.

Neither does mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Amneris catalyze the performances of the two leads as the third in this love triangle. While Barton’s performance is a bit more dramatic, it too falls flat. Perhaps it’s because the audience isn’t convinced that she has any chance at winning over Radamès. And the dull translation of the supertitles didn’t help. In one scene, Barton’s Amneris falsely befriends Aida in order to find out what’s going on with her. Barton responds, “I know how you feel.” Really? She has no idea what it’s like to be enslaved and in love with her master’s servant! And Barton delivers this line without a hint of irony.

Fortunately, this Francesca Zambello directed production benefits greatly from the debut of Turkish bass Önay Köse as the high priest Ramfis. He might not have any substantial solos, but his voice has a beautiful, rich, and rounded tone, which is not easy to achieve in such a low register. Three second-year members of the Ryan Opera Center prove that they’re ready for bigger roles; Wm. Clay Thompson shows off his warm baritone as the Egyptian King; soprano Kathryn Henry sings with otherworldly beauty in her role as the Priestess; and Alejandro Luévanos displays his bright tenor as the Messenger.

This production makes no attempt at recreating the setting of ancient Egypt. There is no Nile River, no pyramids, camels or elephants. Rather than a vast open desert, set designer Michael Yeargan opts for cramped, indoor spaces. Aida opens in a long, low, bunker-like room filled with utilitarian chairs and tables spread with war maps. The soldiers could have come out of the Allied campaign in North Africa during World War II. This modern feel extends to the standards carried by the high priest Ramfis and the Egyptian king, and to the heraldry displayed prominently throughout the production. Though designed by the graffiti artist RETNA, who counts Egyptian hieroglyphics as inspiration, among other things, these look nothing like hieroglyphics. They might be interesting, but they distract from rather than enhance the production design. Moreover, RETNA is a controversial figure who has reportedly destroyed artwork, vandalized a gallery, and assaulted his ex-girlfriend.

Despite the overall modern feel of the production design, some costumes have a more classical flair. Costume designer Anita Yavich attires the cast’s women in long, loose gowns, while the priests wear long transparent robes over military garb. These stylistic inconsistencies make it seem as if the production is trying to have it both ways, modern and classical, without fully succeeding in either.

Unlike other productions this season where the dancing was so minimal as almost to be unnoticeable, here it rightfully takes center stage. A team of nine men and one woman dance as male soldiers, alongside another woman in a white dress. The latter, Anne O’Donnell Passero, is the star of the dance, moving gracefully on her own, or as carried by the men. Though they sometimes dance with aerial silks, they do not hang from them, unfortunately. These ballet movements provide lighter, less bombastic moments during the spectacle-rich Act Two. Adding to the pageantry during this act is the presence onstage, rather than in the pit, of the trumpeters playing the famous march.

From the lackluster leads to the flawed production design, this Aida is somewhat unsatisfying despite its steady pace, varied movements, and dramatic plot. Perhaps the valiant effort to hire African American leads for the opera’s African setting and an African American artist to design much of its set and props was simply not enough to engage with and/or distract from its obvious Orientalism. Bold and ambitious, without quite living up to its promise, Lyric’s long-awaited Aida isn’t quite the high note on which Executive Director Anthony Freud hoped to leave.

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on April 7, 2024
for tickets, call 312.332.2244 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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