The only reason that "Aida," the staple of operas, or one of the "ABCs" (along with "La Boheme" and "Carmen") had not returned to Dallas since 1997 is simply the pursuit of a perfect cast. It is worth the wait. The current season premiere is sumptuous and stunning, a feast both visually and musically.
Had Verdi lived to the late twentieth century, he could have easily won an Oscar nod with his award-winning recipe in the main plot: love and war. The only triangle in Egypt larger than the Khufu Pyramid is the love triangle between Aida, a captive Ethiopian princess, her master, the Egypt princess Amneris and the military commander Radames, with whom both women fall in love deeply.
Just under three hours, the opera captures both the grandeur and the intimacy. Acts 1 and 2 epitomize the scale of a grand opera, with lavish designs and a cast numerous enough to fill every inch of the stage. After the intermission, Acts 3 and 4, with trimmed down lighting and delicate orchestration, bring out deep emotions on love, death, jealousy, fear, regret and reconciliation.
Latonia Moore carried her recent triumph in the last-minute substitute at the Met to win a full house with her effortless plush voice. A native of Houston and a graduate of University of North Texas (originally in Jazz study), her voice in the upper register sounded incredibly smooth and radiant. She could easily hover her singing above the chorus and orchestra regardless of the volume from the latter. Her articulation and phrasing were impeccable through the opera. As the heroine distraught from the conflict between her love for the country and her love for the man, she was engaging and touching in her acting.
With her beautiful face and graceful body, Nadia Krasteva carried inborn nobility in her acting. The role Amneris is equally challenging if no less, because through the story her character gradually changes. As Amneris, Krasteva distinguished her inner fire of jealousy from outward aloofness as high royalty, all through her mellow and pliable voice and gestural languages. She made the character more personal in the second half. In particular, her imploration to Radames to deny all accusations was sung with a searing passion.
Antonello Palombi opened his voice to a full volume throughout the opera. Most of time his firm metallic timbre helped portray a veracious Radames, yet occasionally the projected air of heroism was overly exerted. In the final death scene, his choice for abandonment and despair was the highlight of the acting. In the last moment of Radames, he loosened his limbs and forewent his perfect phrasing for broken sentences, reaching a true tragic climax.
Unlike his other masterpieces, Verdi integrated ballet music to create the atmosphere of ancient Egypt. That 15-minute or so significant dance was fulfilled with the Chicago Festival Ballet, choreographed by Kenneth von Heidecke. The small dancing group not only defied the gravity with bouncing and turning but also paced with the orchestra in great synchronization.
Meanwhile, the lighting alternated between warm orange and cold blue based on the temperament of the music. It is a rare spectacular moment in Verdi’s opera that has nothing to do with singing.
In fact, by 1871, when Verdi wrote "Aida" in his late career, he began to move away from the traditional Italian opera style with segmented arias and duets into embracing more or less Wagnerian music drama. Under the baton of Graeme Jenkins, the orchestra sounded fuller and more engaging than that in "La Traviata," a previous Verdi’s production from the last season. In the second half, not only did the orchestra play in tutti occasionally, but also the tremolos from the strings were called upon frequently to echo the stirring emotions of the main characters. Although trumpeters appeared on the stage to play the famous "Grand March" melody, it was the flutists and especially oboists that played extensive roles in painting exotic atmosphere with their remote harmony.
A notable chorus, prepared by chorus master Alexander Rom, is key to such a grand opera. They sounded unequivocally authoritative in many military and congregational scenes. Yet when it came to praying, they scaled down to hymn with a gossamer sheen, such as "O tu che sei d’Osiride" at the beginning of Act 3. With one bright moon over tall palm trees and short papyrus in the background, it was one of the most memorable moments in the opera.
However, the stage design, although luminous, was not based on Egyptian art, but rather on Egypt mania of the Western culture. If the double-crown is a convenient physical representation of Egyptian art or Amneris’ blue crown, borrowed from Nefertiti, helped re-frame her with a cultural icon, then the overwhelming number of Nemes’ headdresses by guards and servants (instead of royalty) would not be necessary, except for visual splendor.