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Washington National Opera

In Review WNO Aida lg 1217
Ekaterina Semenchuk and Tamara Wilson, Amneris and Aida in Washington
© Scott Suchman/WNO

THE CONCEPT BEHIND the production of Aida that launched Washington National Opera’s season at the Kennedy Center Opera House on September 9 aimed for a fairly intimate experience, in which personal drama outweighed spectacle. That may not have suited all tastes (“They needed an elephant” was just one reaction overheard in the lobby), but it proved reasonably effective, especially in light of some strong musical values.

In the title role, American soprano Tamara Wilson commanded the space with gleaming, evenly focused tone and finely sculpted phrasing. Her pianissimos alone would have made the evening worthwhile. It is possible to give the character more dramatic fire in places, but the soprano nonetheless proved a noble heroine. Wilson’s Aida did not have an ideal vocal partner in the Radamès of Yonghoon Lee. Lee started off producing gentle dynamic nuances, but midway through “Celeste Aida,” he settled into a steady, stentorian mode. For all his impressive high-note power, the tenor’s singing ended up largely earthbound, his acting stolid. Ekaterina Semenchuk jumped into the role of Amneris with good old-fashioned theatrical flair and, for the most part, luxuriant vocalism to match.

A bit of tonal leatheriness aside, Gordon Hawkins delivered the goods as Amonasro, summoning a wealth of inflections; no daughter could have resisted this father’s velvet-gloved pleading in the Nile scene. As Ramfis, Morris Robinson’s diction was not always clear, but his tone evoked authority. The sturdy-voiced Soloman Howard hit the spot as the King. The chorus excelled.

From the first measures of the prelude, it was clear that Evan Rogister would lead a stylish account of the score. Unhurried in the most lyrical moments, the conductor’s attention to phrasing and dynamics nonetheless kept the music flowing vibrantly. He whipped up energy just as persuasively, building to climactic peaks with taut control, and drew impressive playing from the orchestra throughout.

A coproduction with San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera and Minnesota Opera, the staging by Francesca Zambello eschewed traditional Egyptian trappings (and race-altering makeup for Aida). Instead, the visual foundation was built on an assortment of abstract calligraphy- and graffiti-like art by Marquis Duriel Lewis (better known as Retna), applied to Michael Yeargan’s basic set design and given considerable life by Mark McCullough’s rich lighting. The look grew less interesting as the opera unfolded, as did the period-roving costumes by Anita Yavich. 

But the visuals suited Zambello’s directorial focus on the opera’s individuals, their struggles with duty and conscience, heart and mind. And she made telling points about the opera’s violent milieu; children dressed in military uniforms did a dance full of aggressive moves for Amneris and the other approving women of the court. The rest of Jessica Lang’s choreography, elegantly performed by members of her company, added much to the production, particularly in the way it turned the triumph march into something like the revolution-touting ballets of Mao’s China—a compelling image of determined exhortation that didn’t need even a single hoof of wildlife.  —Tim Smith

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