Remember A Night at the Opera? There’s that sublimely anarchic moment when a hapless tenor is crooning his way through a Verdi aria while Harpo Marx swings to and fro on the ropes that control the scenery. As the singer tries to keep the music going, scenic drops rise and fall randomly beside him, behind him, and even directly in front of him, until the opera itself is rendered superfluous.
In the Washington Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Aida, the first in the company’s temporary digs at DAR Constitution Hall, Harpo’s role is played by Paolo Miccichè. He’s billed as “stage and visual director,” which in this case means he’s responsible for the thoroughly routine staging of the singers and the nearly ceaseless movement of diaphanous curtains and three-story-high scrim panels. Yes, those curtains and panels close with stunning regularity directly in front of the singers. And, yes, it’s while they’re singing.
For Miccichè, Aida is a son et lumière that happens to have better-than-average vocalists. And if you’re sitting in a dead-center box seat (as I was for the second half of the evening), that spectacle is pretty entertaining in its own right. The acres of white material being hoisted and tracked about the stage are used as screens for a continually evolving series of projected images designed by Antonio Mastromattei and Patrick Watkinson. A photocollaged amalgam of museum artifacts, color-saturated Egyptian landscapes, and computer graphics, the projections at worst resemble a gargantuan three-color brochure advertising Aida and at best reflect the vast emotional sweep of the opera.
Verdi’s tale of forbidden love between Egyptian general Radames and Ethiopian slave girl Aida has always provided fodder for imaginative stage design. In the WashOp’s staging, it’s a real kick to see the stage engulfed by the rivers of blood Aida’s father predicts for Ethiopia if his daughter continues her dalliance with the enemy. It’s a clever touch, too, to have the opera fade in from, and fade out to, a monolithic wall of hieroglyphics, as if this flesh-and-blood story had been locked away in a set of dusty, impenetrable symbols.
Unfortunately, Miccichè makes sure the flesh-and-blood part remains locked away, blocking our access to it with stage machinery. For every evocative image or subtle scenic shift, there are 10 intrusive visual “events.” No sooner has a singer begun a plaintive aria, or one of Verdi’s glorious ensembles started to blossom, than the whirring, whining, and squeaking of the curtain tracks and scrim rollers yank your attention overhead. Sure, the material that drops between the singers and the audience is fairly transparent. But how the hell are you supposed to connect with the characters when the director treats them as if they were pieces of furniture, moving scenery in front of them just to make things pretty?
Pretty, that is, if you’re in the best seats. Try sitting close to the stage (as I did during the first half of the opera) and what’s merely distracting from further away becomes positively disorienting. To judge by the comments of several patrons and colleagues I spoke to at intermission, the situation in the seats along the side of the auditorium is worse: Evidently, those panels along the footlights block sightlines to the stage and the surtitle screens, and the situation gets more serious the farther from center you sit.
Part of the problem, of course, is the notoriously intractable DAR Constitution Hall, which the WashOp is occupying through December while the Kennedy Center Opera House gets a makeover, along with the hoops the company has jumped through to try to make the venue more opera-friendly. Looking like a cross between an aircraft hangar and a high-school auditorium, DARCon features a long, elevated horseshoe of seats facing into the center of the hall, a bank of floor-level seats in the center inside the horseshoe, and a small stage at the end of the room.
The WashOp has placed the orchestra on that stage, hidden behind an acoustically transparent curtain (which, naturally, opens and closes incessantly throughout Aida). Roughly half of the floor seats have been removed to make way for a new raised stage that continues out into the house from the front of the original stage. Because the seats on the sides of the horseshoe have remained, the new construction is, effectively, a three-quarter thrust: Most of the audience is situated out front, but a significant part of it flanks the stage on either side.
Now, creating a thrust with such an inequitable distribution of seats is asking for trouble. So wouldn’t you think a director, knowing that hundreds of ticket buyers will be watching his production from seats next to the stage, might throw them a bone from time to time? The choice to use front panels in this stage configurationnot to mention a huge, semicircular center curtain that almost totally obstructs sightlines from the extreme side seatsis not only a failure of imagination, but an act of dismissive arrogance toward operagoers who can’t fork over the $285 required for center seats.
Then again, what can be seen of Miccichè’s work with the singers is not all that compelling. This Aida is purely a paint-by-numbers affair, in which vocalists register big, generalized emotions on their faces, stride to fixed places onstage, and deliver their arias in standard park-and-bark fashion. And as with the scrims, little of the blocking takes the side audience into account. But how could it? By curtaining off so much of the stage, the director has forced his performers into a shallow trough at the footlights. With so much playing area lost, it’s impossible to find the kind of singing positions that would allow the performers to be seen and heard properly by everyone in the house.
These singers deserve to be heard, too. Casting Aida has become one of the great headaches for today’s opera administrators: For a host of reasons, there are a lot more great voices out there for early music than late-period Verdi. But the WashOp has done as good a job choosing big, juicy voices for Verdi’s big, juicy writing as any international company could be expected to.
Remarkably, all of the leads are consistent, not only in their strong voices, but in their good old-fashioned vocal grandstanding, as well. Maria Guleghina’s Aida, for instance, has the meaty tone and requisite power to sell the character’s impassioned arias. She has a habit of kicking her edgy high notes into a softly floated pianissimo, and she does it just often enough to sound self-serving rather than score-serving. It’s a thrilling effect, thoughas is Franco Farina’s way of doggedly holding his high notes. When was the last time you heard a tenor with a voice both hefty and attractive enough for Radames hit those rafter-ringing notes fearlessly and then hang onto them so shamelessly? Elegant? Nah. Exciting? Most definitely.
Mezzo Marianne Cornetti is a big high-note holder, too. But her real vocal gimmick is punching her chest voice for maximum baritonal bang. Her portrayal of the pharaoh’s daughter Amneris, whose unrequited lust for Radames spells trouble for Aida, is the classiest and most attractively sung performance in the productionalbeit also the most stiffly acted.
Mark Delavan, on the other hand, offers the most detailed and engaging acting in the cast as the captured Ethiopian king (and Aida’s father), Amonasro. If only his singing were half as nuanced as Cornetti’s. Delavan is poised to follow Leonard Warren and Sherrill Milnes as the next great American Verdi baritone, but at DARCon he delivers his dark, commanding voice with undifferentiated phrasing and relentless volume. Indeed, you could say that in this production, hectoring loudness is Delavan’s own vocal gimmick.
All of the voices sound solid and well-focused from the center boxes, and the seats up front provide a visceral, tingle-producing experience that pays its own dividends. From that edge-of-the-stage vantage point, though, the voice practically disappears any time a singer turns around. You’ve got to wonder, once again, what kind of show the folks on the extreme sides get with the singers’ backs turned toward them 90 percent of the time.
The orchestra, meanwhile, tends to sound recessed during softer passages but takes on a satisfying presence at the big moments. It’ll be interesting to hear what kind of power can be unleashed in the space by a less polite conductor than Heinz Fricke. To his credit, though, Fricke’s phrasing is warmer and more elastic than in previous WashOp Verdi outings, and he maintains a remarkable coordination with his singers, especially given that all communication between them is via video monitor.
The choreography, by contrast, is as routine and generically 19th-century as the staging. And who came up with the ludicrous bit of business in which we’re meant to believe that a svelte, lip-synching dancer in a nude body stocking is Amneris fresh out of the bath, and that the, um, more amply proportioned Signora Cornetti, wafting on in yards of taffeta and a big ol’ wig, is that same person, now dressed?
Actually, Cornetti’s gowns are among the more conventional outfits in this giddily campy costume free-for-all. Think The Ten Commandments meets Barbarella on the Milan runway. Costume designer Alberto Spiazzi even goes so far as to incorporate a Vegas-worthy fiber-optic material called Luminex (I wish I were kidding), which turns the performers into living black-light posters at key moments. It’s a decision that flips a final and definitive bird to any notion of tragic grandeur or emotional credibility in this deeply felt masterpiece.
Even if Aida marks a frustrating return to the WashOp’s tradition of well-sung, insensitively staged Verdi, there’s no reason to write off DARCon quite yet. The production’s best momentswhen the stage machinery is still, the curtaining is kept to a minimum, and scenic shifts are marked by subtly cross-fading imagesshow that projected scenery can be a savvy and dramatically effective staging choice. If the WashOp wants to make this year in exile memorablein a good wayit might start by setting fire to those front scrim panels, seeking some subscriber feedback, and hiring directors who can think a little farther outside the box. Then it might just have something. CP