‘Aida’ and ‘Rigoletto’: lush Verdi

Portland and Seattle productions' opulence and timelessness overcome oft-staged operas’ overfamiliarity

Two stunning Giuseppe Verdi operas in one West Coast weekend are a treat, unless grandeur is not your thing.

Portland Opera’s Rigoletto, which opened May 4 at Keller Auditorium and continues with performances on May 10 and 12, and Seattle Opera’s Aida, with a two-week run through May 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall, were full-blown triumphs. If we’ve seen and heard them time and time again, and though they’re weighted down with sexism and un-fluid gender roles, as the trendy phrase goes, these productions showed frequently staged operas can remain exciting.

Seattle Opera presents Verdi’s ‘Aida’ featuring design by the street and studio artist RETNA. Photo: Philip Newton.

Remember, this music, written by Italians, was first performed in the mid-19th century. Today, the operas can inspire us to discuss and sort out sex roles and gender traps more honestly than in the old days. If we’re willing to suspend imagination, they can challenge rather than frustrate us.

Directed by PO’s leader Christopher Mattaliano with George Manahan conducting, Rigoletto is visually stunning, opening with a long take of vivid red light on the jester Rigoletto, lonely and alone on a black stage until the decadent party starts. As dramatic as the visuals is the generous helping of wonderful singers, most especially powerful baritone Stephen Powell, who performed the role of hump-backed and tragic Rigoletto.

Stephen Powell in the title role of Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo by Cory Weaver.

Soprano Katrina Galka, a former PO resident artist, played his over-protected (let’s say, isolated) vulnerable daughter, Gilda, who in the end, needlessly sacrifices herself. Aside from Galka, several PO resident artists, both current and former, have supporting roles, including Shi Li, Helen Huang, Hannah Penn, Thomas Cilluffo and Kate Farrar.

The three-hour Rigoletto — the production is shared in part with the Atlanta Opera and Utah Symphony & Opera was an ideal season opener for PO, which has upped its game with its slick Toi Toi Toi magazine of previews and profiles available at each of the four operas through August. Bruce Browne will have a full ArtsWatch Rigoletto review next week.

Aida: lush and lovely

Aida, a lush Seattle Opera production, too, is a visual knock-out. At times, the stops are fully pulled out when the stage holds nine dancers, a half-dozen well-choreographed young boys, the entire chorus, and handful of main characters. That’s not including the set’s towering hieroglyphics designed by Los Angeles one-time graffiti artist RETNA, who collaborated with scenery designer Michael Yeargan, lighting genius Mark McCullough and costume designer Anita Yavich. No detail — or cost — seemed spared.

With Yavich’s costumes, once again, opulence is the theme, though no particular period is obvious, which makes them a universal mishmash of metaphors. The military dress of the men isn’t tied to time, and cleverly, a scrim-like “robe” — resembling the hieroglyphic-decorated scrim that separates the main curtain from the stage — covers the uniforms when the military chorus changes into the priests, perhaps the one concession to frugality! When at home, the women lounge in long elegant Roman-influenced dresses, but when in public, their attire is white, rendering them cogs in a political wheel.

Seattle Opera presents Verdi’s ‘Aida’ featuring design by the street and studio artist RETNA. Photo: Philip Newton.

Aida’s dress never changes: She wears an unadorned peasant frock in purple and green, complementary colors, but she is dressed as a slave, not as a bejeweled Egyptian woman, or a princess in sequins, as is Amneris. The gold wing-like details on the dancers’ costumes give them a floaty birdlike quality, adding a spiritual element to several scenes.

The hieroglyphic-heavy design symbolizes Egypt, where Aida is enslaved during a war between Egypt and Ethiopia. At times, in their over-the-top red grandeur, the sets bring to mind China; other times, the former Soviet Union or autocratic regimes. As the opera progresses, they signal inflexibility and too much power. Sometimes, they morph into graffiti, as in the final tomb scene.

All these elements, with several interludes of Jessica Lang’s (not the actress, the dancer) modern mist-filled flowing choreography that landed the dancers in the realm of the spiritual, required tight directing and artistic control. SO was up to this enormous undertaking in reproducing Francesca Zambello’s production shared with San Francisco, Washington National and Minnesota operas. Zambello is the artistic director of the Washington National Opera and general director of New York’s Glimmerglass Festival; she began a liaison with SO in 1987 with Faust. John Fiore made his SO debut as music conductor and he led a first-rate orchestra, including the trumpet players who put the requisite polish on the familiar “Triumphal March.”

SO has double casts for main roles. The “second-day” cast that I saw on May 6 was superb. SO claims its casts are no longer segregated into “gold” and “silver”; both sets of singers are equally skilled with different kinds of complementariness. Main roles require big sings, and the opera’s 11-performance run is a marathon, so a dual cast is essential.

In this story about doomed lovers — poor Aida (soprano Alexandra LoBianco) and the Egyptian army leader Radamés, sung smoothly and robustly by barrel-chested tenor David Pomeroy, are in love, the kind that is never going to work out. Princess Amneris (Elena Gabouri) is also in love with Radamés. She is the Egyptian princess and figures the soldier will be hers. But he doesn’t want her. He wants Aida. The stars are crossed. All of the main singers, not just Pomeroy, are very good — as is their acting and stage movement. Gabouri modulates her voice with a staccato of jealousy in the first act, with the swooping sadness of defeated love at the end.

Alexandra LoBianco (Aida) and David Pomeroy (Radamés). Photo: Jacob Lucas.

All ends up tragically … spoiler alert, if you don’t know the story … with Radamés buried alive and Aida joining him in the tomb. It’s Amneris, sung and acted so well by mezzo Gabouri, (though she is less ingenue than matron) who emerges the most interesting character. She never gets her way, either—but she does have the last word. She changes from a one-tracked jealous entitled king’s daughter into a skeptic who tries to save Radamès’s life. She calls out the hypocrisy and harshness of the priests and the military—the institutions that rule and stifle the land. None of the good guys or gals wins, as it often goes in operatic tragedy.

The duets in Aida, as in Rigoletto, are among the most engaging of romantic operatic music. Aida must sing all over the vocal map, and she does it equally well in the chesty low and searingly high ranges — and lying down in the tomb with her beloved (and she got the biggest ovation). She is onstage for long stretches, usually unhappy and overcome with longing. Her touching duet with Amonasro (her father who is captured by the Egyptians, sung convincingly by bass-baritone Alfred Walker, dressed like a Nigerian soldier) goes back and forth, playing pity off loyalty, desire off family faithfulness. Love or country? The dilemma is a timeless one and trips up the political machine. Prince Edward of Wales gave up the British crown for American socialite Wallis Simpson, didn’t he?

Aida’s duets with Radamés and Amneris about power and who owns it are as memorable as the overwrought “Triumphal March” that we’ve heard a million times before, with or without elephants (elephants don’t march in this production).

But this grandly, this opulently, this eloquently? Unless Verdi is on your hate list, you won’t be disappointed by this three-hour Aida, no matter how often you’ve heard it before.

Tickets are available at Seattle Opera here with final performances May 9, 11, 12,13, 16, 18, and 19.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

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