But “bad” is the wrong word. This “Aida” was simply an example of a company reaching beyond its means — and proving that such ambition can be worthwhile. “Aida” is a repertory staple that isn’t quite as ubiquitous as “La Boheme” or “Carmen,” mainly because it’s harder to cast: You need big solid voices that are hard for a Metropolitan Opera to find, let alone the much smaller Virginia Opera. But Friday night showed anew the magical transformation that is possible when a cast of committed singers, even if they’re not of international caliber, throw themselves into a work of art with heart and soul.
It takes more than heart to bring this kind of thing off: This “Aida” would have fallen flat without three key players.
There was the director, Lillian Groag, who treated the singers as if they were real actors, and brought new life to a familiar work in the process; I’ve never experienced Aida and Radames’s relationship as such a believable interaction between two people thwarted in their attempt to love each other. There was the conductor, John DeMain, a capable veteran providing a sure and steady hand in the pit, leading members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. And there was radiant soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as Aida, who was probably the reason this company dared take on “Aida” in the first place.
Williams is not actually an Aida; her voice is about two sizes too small for the part. She is, however, a consummate artist, who stood out with the company as Tosca (another ambitious assignment) in 2009, and who won more local attention as Adriana Lecouvreur at the Washington Concert Opera last fall.
She has a soft bronze voice with a limpid quality, whether she is singing at her loudest or floating out a gentle little phrase that tamed the bombast of the big Act II ensemble. She is also a wonderful presence on stage, at once regal and human.
As Aida, the Ethiopian princess captured by the Egyptians and enslaved to the princess Amneris, Williams seemed a true princess in disguise, whether she was going through the motions of a slave girl or standing up to Amneris and starting to snap at her that she was, indeed, her equal. She looked it, every inch.
The other singers, individually of varying attainments, rose to her level. Ramphis, the Egyptian high priest, was played by an actual Egyptian, the competent if light-voiced bass Ashraf Sewailam. Fikile Mvinjelwa, a stentorian South African baritone singing Amonasro, Aida’s father, tended to shout a bit but muscled out big lines and hung on to high notes for ages in the true old-school Italian spirit. Tenor Gustavo Lopez Manzitti often sounded strained, in a straining role, but managed to hit all the notes and convey the ardor, confusion and fundamental decency of Radames, the Egyptian general.