Virginia Opera stages spectacular 'Aida' at GMU

Norfolk-based company hits comeback trail in epic fashion. Mary Elizabeth Williams and Jeniece Golbourne star. Photo: Virginia Opera

VIENNA, Va., October 19, 2011 – The Virginia Opera opened the Northern Virginia edition of its 2011-2012 season this past weekend with an astonishing and impressive staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. For a regional opera company that, like many, has experienced some difficulties in recent years, this production of Aïda was light years beyond anything the company has done in recent memory.

To be sure, although the Virginia Opera’s Aïda held the concept of “spectacle” close to its heart, it boasted none of the elephants, horses, and thronging hordes of celebrants that made this opera a legend. Rather, the company somehow conjured up much of the opera’s epic sweep on a budget. Designed by the always-inventive Erhard Rom, the production’s one-size-fits-all set—a series of movable translucent pyramidal polymer or plexiglass screens affixed to geometrical supports with a stationary catwalk to the rear—was transformed as if by magic into a highly credible Egyptian palace complex that was at once majestic while making the palace intrigues seem strangely intimate as well.

Virginia Opera's promotional poster for 'Aida.'

Virginia Opera’s promotional poster for ‘Aida.’

How did they do it? First off, Martha Hally’s extravagantly colorful period costuming recreated ancient Egypt in a dazzling, close-to-authentic manner, including the sashes, stylized wigs, and countless linear feet of heavy gold jewelry that readily distinguished royalty from rabble. The spectacle was further enhanced with the glowing gold and red lighting schemes designed by Kendall Smith to highlight the most dramatic scenes

Musically, the production was nearly flawless. The orchestra—members of the Virginia Symphony under the crisp direction of John Demain—was spot-on throughout the performance, adding a Wagnerian dimension to the sound. And the members of the various choruses, while not large in number, uniformly possessed fine and accurate voices that together underlined majesty of the performance with near-military precision.

(Listen to John Demain’s comments on Aïda here:)

But perhaps the most regal thing of all in this production was the sheer excellence of its soloists, all of whom get a considerable workout in Aïda. At the top of the list was soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as the opera’s title character and heroine, an Ethiopian slave who’s secretly a princess and daughter of the Ethiopian king, a sworn enemy of the Egyptians.

Williams impressed Virginia Opera audiences in 2009 with a memorable performance as Tosca in Puccini’s eponymous opera. As Aïda, she gets considerably more to do in a complex role that ranges from passion to subservience, to regal nobility and demands great range, power, and flexibility. Already a commanding stage presence, Williams possesses all these and more. Her superb command of diction and her ability to soar above Verdi’s massive orchestral accompaniment without any apparent effort, transform her into a riveting, memorable heroine.

Aida (Mary Elizabeth Williams).

Aida (Mary Elizabeth Williams). (Credits: Virginia Opera.)

As her nemesis, Amneris, daughter of the King (Pharaoh) of Egypt, mezzo-soprano Jeniece Golbourne is a worthy foil to Aïda, who, unfortunately, happens to be her personal slave. Golbourne is a formidable talent as well, possessing that unique kind of mezzo that comes out knife-clean and avoids being buried in the fabric of the orchestral accompaniment. Veering between haughtiness and vulnerability, Amneris is in many ways the driving force of this opera, particularly after she confirms her suspicions that Aïda and Radamès—captain of the Egyptian forces as well as her intended—have become a secret item. The flashes of passion and fury radiated by Golbourne’s Amneris provide much of the tension that makes this opera one of the most dramatic works in the repertoire.

As Radamès himself, tenor Gustavo Lopez Manzitti does not quite keep pace with this production’s larger-than-life female leads, but he does hold his own. During Sunday’s performance, his voice at times seemed a bit unsteady, as if he were fighting a minor cold. This robbed his otherwise big, epic tenor of the authority needed to maintain credibility as the incredibly desirable object of affection for the opera’s two alpha females. Nevertheless, he was excellent in his opening aria—notorious for occurring so near to the opera’s beginning—and performed superbly in the opera’s many ensembles.

Ramphis the High Priest (Ashraf Sewailam) and Amneris .(Jeniece Golbourne)

Ramphis the High Priest (Ashraf Sewailam), and Amneris (Jeniece Golbourne) have serious issues.

Smaller roles were well sung. As the Egyptian King, bass Nathan Stark stood rock solid and commanding in his brief appearances as the ruler who is also reverenced as a god. Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam is chilling and heartless as Ramphis, the haughty high priest and nemesis of Radamès. And, in the brief but highly important (and difficult) role of Amonasro, secretly the King of Ethiopia and father of Aïda, baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa was a seething cauldron of warrior-energy, a fact not diminished by his relatively small stature.

The entire production was directed by Lillian Groag whose ingenious blocking, entrances, and exits succeeded in keeping the singers front and center while also creating a sense of spectacle far greater than the actual forces available to her.

An added and surprising bonus of the production was the incorporation of the opera’s numerous and important dance sequences, material that’s occasionally trimmed or otherwise neglected in many smaller productions of this opera. That’s because keeping this material in adds considerably to a production’s cost. Virginia Opera’s solution was to add in roughly half a dozen fine dancers from the Richmond Ballet, with choreography by Malcolm Burn.

Virginia Opera's 'Aida.'

Virginia Opera’s ‘Aida.’ Epic scope on a small scale.

At intermission, one audience member was overheard telling another that the dancers were doing “more gymnastics than ballet” which was technically true. However, there wasn’t actually a lot of room for full-blown ballet numbers on the Center for the Arts stage, configured as it was for the main opera event. As a result, the ballet-cum-gymnastics were just fine for this production, economically re-creating the full dramatic sweep of Aïda without the need for an entire dance company, not to mention all those elephants, horses, lions, tigers and bears.

Sunday’s audience was alternately shocked, surprised, and absolutely delighted by what they got from Virginia Opera’s Aïda. Expecting at least a decent show, what they got was a whole lot more, a great small production of a real opera epic that would have still been nice at twice the price. It looks like the Virginia Opera has been reborn.

Alas, this production of Aïda has already come and gone from Fairfax City. But if your interest has been piqued, you can catch the opera’s final performances this weekend at Richmond’s spectacularly restored circus-deco-baroque Carpenter Theatre. For information and tickets, visit the Virginia Opera website.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars out of four.)


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his WT Communities column, The Prudent Man in Politics.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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