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  • Angela Allyn

Majestic Aida caps Lyric Season

Despite director Francesca Zambello’s assertion that Aida is a chamber opera, Verdi’s epic work is the epitome of grand opera with all of its cast of thousands (well about 100), big loves, jealousy and the horrible and tragic death of the main characters. 

Aida was the opera that opened the Civic Opera House, now the home of Chicago’s Lyric Opera and the Joffrey Ballet, six days after the stock market crashed.  And before that  it was Aida that kicked off Chicago’s very first resident opera company The Chicago Grand Opera company with a sold out production in November of 1910– so this is a work that you bring out when you want to go big or go home. 

As with many historic operas and their plots, this one struggles to stay contemporary.  Verdi looked long for a plot that would capitalize on his era's fascination with Eqyptology, and would suit a commission from Khedive of Egypt who wanted a spectacle to open a new theater built to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. There’s an unmistakeable whiff of exoticism and appropriation in the endeavor which Zambello moves to skirt with bold choices. Set in an unspecified reign in “ancient” Egypt the very generic plot refers to a war between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians.  There is absolutely nothing in the plot or the way the opera is presented at the Lyric that is remotely historically accurate so pitch out the idea that you are looking at a piece that references its setting or time. This is a performance art work with highly stylized visuals and an immersive score conducted by the Lyric’s music director Enrique Mazzola who has a unique affinity for Verdi.   It has a massive cast of gorgeous dancers, thrilling choristers and adorable children, as well as a passel of raggedy slaves captured in battle. Zambello has brought the piece into a very modern and abstract era which reeks of wartime  and conflict in at least the 20th century.  Artist RETNA whose graphic work is based on Egyptian hieroglyphics has created a visual design that is as stark and harsh as war.  In this barren world, Zambello asks us to focus on the emotions. The enslaved beauty Aida falls in love with the man who is at war with her people (Stockholm syndrome maybe?trauma bond?).  The King's daughter also loves the successful general Radamės.  It sets up all kinds of interesting resonances about race in this rendering of the opera when Michelle Bradley, the Aida here, is African American and Princess Amneris (Jamie Barton)  is white.  Radamės, the amazing Russell Thomas is also African American thus Amneris basically roping him into marrying her could be interpreted as  a possessive kind of coercion. So there are many little ripples of interpretations of the plot that Zambello may or may not have intended given that her focus was on the relationships of the characters. In the end however, all the main characters are doomed.

This Aida is an experience for the senses of sight and sound and it is huge, a feast of contrasts and crowds, a kind of spectacle that is special and rare.  While traditionalists may scoff at the modernistic twist here, at it’s heart and soul this is fine representation of Grand Opera. 

Aida is only playing 8 more times at Chicago’s Lyric Opera at 20 North Wacker Drive in Chicago’s Loop, so you have to hurry and get those tickets and information:

If you are opera curious, the Lyric has a wonderful website with lots of supplemental background information and if you get to the gorgeous opera house an hour early there is always a very illuminating talk about the opera beforehand. 

Photo by Todd Rosenberg

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