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Call it Austerity Aida, a budget production of the most extravagant opera in the canon. Verdi’s grand opera (and Elton John’s superior musical) about a made-up war between ancient Egypt and Ethiopia is meant to be a lavish affair, best staged outdoors with a cast of hundreds and a menagerie of animals. I’m told some productions include live elephants, but for all the times I’ve seen Aida, I’ve never seen any damn elephants.
Instead of armies of pachyderms, D.C. audiences get RETNA. Née Marquis Lewis, the onetime graffiti artist’s career trajectory has taken him from bombing walls in L.A. to designing ads for Louis Vuitton and Vistajet, all while retaining his crucial tag name that lends that whiff of street cred to stuffy corporate clients that lack it. That urban art sensibility also interests stuffy nonprofits like the Washington National Opera, which commissioned him to design some set backdrops with his trademark calligraphy style that borrows from, among other things, Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The designs are cool, if not particularly congruous with anything. RETNA’s pattern prints (which to me look more like Korean hangeul than anything Egyptian, but whatever) decorate the stage, curtains, and soldiers’ banners, and give the proscenium the look of a war between rival skateboard companies—Element vs. Zoo York would be my guess. But that’s kind of it. There aren’t any hugely famous names among the cast, though it includes many of WNO’s best regulars including Carl Tanner, Gordon Hawkins, and Soloman Howard. Nor is there much in the way of set design. In lieu of any pyramids or other architecture, there’s a lot of empty space, while the cast frequently looks off in the distance to suggest there’s something big and impressive happening somewhere else—a trick pioneered by Michael Bay (seriously, just watch any Transformers movie).
Costumes, from designer Anita Yavich, evoke a Nasser-era Egypt setting, though this is confusing because the Ethiopians wear Cuban military fatigues. In any case, we don’t get any actual battle scenes, though Saturday’s opening had one painfully clumsy knife fight in which performers kept dropping the knife. Director Francesca Zambello writes in the program notes that “I am still convinced Aida is a chamber opera,” a signal to keep your expectations low. She pads the action with some cute kids doing tumbles and genuinely impressive ballet dancers, but during some awkward post-intermission set changes, there’s nothing going on at all. Overall it’s pretty humble.
That being said, WNO’s singers are still able to do a lot with what they have. Saturday’s cast, the first of two that rotate, featured a superb trio of Tamara Wilson in the title role, Yonghoon Lee as Radamès, and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris. Wilson’s fluttery soprano is flexible enough to be coquettish at first and appropriately anguished by the end, displaying good vocal and emotional range for an opera famous for its lack of character development. Lee, a shouty tenor, is mostly just loud, but manages to tone it down for a tender “O terra addio,” the last of the opera’s signature, multi-part duets. Semenchuk, a mezzo, is the most impressive of the bunch; she does a syrupy take on the spurned princess, the only complex character in the whole story.
Conductor Evan Rogister leads the orchestra with confidence and warmth through Verdi’s rich score. Listen for recurring themes: high notes from the strings, representing Aida; lower register scales representing the priests, staggered and sometimes overlapping. Given the many layers of Verdi’s musical ideas, the libretto is kind of a letdown: Likely cribbed from earlier operas, it purports to be a war epic but is really a standard doomed love triangle. The war part is a conceit to force choices between patriotic duty and love.
This Aida is nothing special, but season openers are usually designed to be nothing special. You need to kick things off with a familiar repertory piece that will pack the seats before you can do any weird contemporary stuff later in the season. You don’t want to be boring but you don’t want to be too experimental either. Some vaguely street art-inspired set backdrops do exactly what they’re designed to do: reassure subscribers you’re keeping with the times without scaring them off. But they’re not much of a draw on their own. Those duets by themselves might be. Then again, you’ll likely have more chances to hear them elsewhere, maybe even with some critters on stage.
At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sept. 23. 2700 F St. NW. $45 – $300. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.