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Review: ‘Aida’ at Washington National Opera

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Eternal, romantic love conquers all — even a jealous rival — in Verdi’s ravishingly melodic Aida, now being presented by the Washington National Opera with splendid work from all involved. Verdi’s soaring yet sensitive music pervades this production and is the prime reason for attending; indeed, the interpretation of this glorious music by the cast was the highlight of this timeless classic.

The themes of love of nation, fatalism, and the power of those in authority have never been as relevant as they are now, and director Francesca Zambello deftly accentuates these themes with the contemporary flourishes of the acclaimed graffiti artist Retna. Retna’s original sketches and conceptual design add colorful zest to the proceedings, and they add flavor to the beautiful, natural poetic imagery of the book by Antonio Ghislanzoni.

Zambello stages each scene with uncanny skill, from larger ensemble groupings to more intimate arias and romantic duets. Dramatic moments flow beautifully from one moment to the next.

Tamara Wilson as Aida. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Conductor Evan Rogister sensitively conducts, eliciting tones of insistent yearning that, suddenly, thrill with dramatic crescendos. Rogister evoked the more militaristic pomp of the music with the more romantic style of Verdi’s music. The oft-performed succession of melodies in the Triumphal scene (“O Re, pei sacri Numi! Gloria all Egitto”) were particularly resonant.

The Washington National Opera Orchestra played with finesse, and the Washington National Opera Chorus was very effective.

Soprano Tamara Wilson delivers a definitive performance as the tormented Aida. Wilson strikes just the right balance between indignant victim and idealistic lover. Wilson’s aria “Ritorna vicitor!” was brilliantly devastating in its power. Wilson showed superior vocal control in many sustained passages; she transitioned from her upper register to an ethereal and softly delivered coda in many of her arias and vocal moments.

The robustly vigorous and passionate Tenor voice of Yonghoon Lee was captivating and enthralling from the moment he walked onstage. Lee took command of the stage with ease and moved with consummate authority as the warrior Radames. Lee’s opening aria, “Celeste Aida,” set the tone for the evening as he sang of his love for Aida.

As the Egyptian Princess Amneris, Mezzo-Soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk dazzled in a role that is much less archetypal than the characters of Aida and Radames. Semenchuk’s character changes emotions from jealousy to love and back again. Semechuk’s aria of defiance when she curses against the injustices of the priests is a standout: “Radames! Radames! Radames!”

In supporting roles, Baritone Gordon Hawkins as Amonasro and Bass Morris Robinson as Ramfis were very well-cast and sang with rich resonance.

Ekaterina Semenchuk (Amneris) and Yonghoon Lee (Radames) in Aida. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Much needed merriment was provided in some very well-choreographed scenes with the Washington National Opera Youth Dancers. Choreographer Jessica Lang added a contemporary touch with the adult dancers displaying unique and disarming ballet movements.

Lighting Designer Mark McCullough worked wonders with innovative lighting that was stunning in effect. One scene was bathed in white light, another scene was lit in golden yellows and another was lit in multi-colored hues.

Costume Designer Anita Yavich designed a very edgy and tailored look for the cast and especially deserved laurels for the tailored military outfits.

The triumph of Verdi’s Aida, and a tribute to the prowess of Ghislanzoni’s libretto, is the victory of romantic love over nationalism, war, and authority. In this current political climate, the subjective appeal of individuals in love has never been more important. Director Zambello expertly focuses on the torment of the lovers rather than the pomp and ritual of this beloved opera. The haunting duet at the end of the opera as Aida and Radames embrace with the knowledge of death, “O terra addio,” leaves one weeping copious tears.

This is an Aida to cherish!

Running Time: Three Hours including one 25-minute intermission.

Aida plays through September 23, 2017, at Washington National Opera, in the Kennedy Center Opera House – 2700 F St NW in Washington, D.C.. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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