Opening night for Verdi's "Aida" promises to be an unusually electrifying experience.
For starters, when the Washington Opera begins its spring season tonight at DAR Constitution Hall, gossamer panels will supplant the traditional velvet curtain, rising and gliding across a sloping, sand-strewn stage. In place of standard grand opera scenery, morphing mirages of ancient Egypt will be projected onto every visible surface.
The journey begins with a startling display of hieroglyphics, which transforms the hall. Giant stone masks materialize, like hollow-eyed figures transported from the Valley of the Gods. An aria or two later, an artful cross-fade renders them invisible. A luminous goddess Isis takes their place, raising a golden disc overhead, until she, too, evaporates in a blending of images from the director's archive. The Nile River appears to flow right, while palms on the far bank slide to the left. Nothing is real, nothing remains, except the realization that six 7,000-watt projectors stationed at the very top of the hall can transform a Saturday night at the opera into a virtual descent into a pharaoh's tomb.
This is opera for the 21st century. If some of the tricks are borrowed straight from rock concerts, stage director Paolo Micciche is not apologetic. The Florentine designer has projected opera in a stadium filled with 30,000 fans. For Washington's "Aida," he spent the past year in his studio translating the emotion of Giuseppe Verdi's music into something more intimate. But the imagery, lighting, motion and timing have all the intensity of a contemporary cinematic experience.
"I'm really happy," Washington Opera Artistic Director Placido Domingo said, midway through the first dress rehearsal Wednesday. "It's to be seen what the public will take."
There's lots more, thanks to Micciche, one of Italy's most creative stage director-designers. Dawn will turn to dusk -- and love to vengeance -- through the skillful manipulation of illumination. The theatrics are exotic and, here, powerful. In one scene, a backdrop of mummies creates a spectacle worthy of King Tut. At first, long-departed pharaohs are encased in royal blue and shiny gold. After a few acts of treachery onstage, crimson lights effectively flood the scene with blood.
Live characters are also light-enhanced, thanks to a fabric that is making its world stage premiere. Key costumes have been made with a new high-tech textile called Luminex, which Micciche encountered in January 2002 at a fashion trade show in Florence. Luminex combines fiber-optic technology with polyester and other routine woven materials. Here, the results are anything but routine. The sparkle of thousands, maybe millions of points of battery-powered light emanates from dancers' sleeves, the heroine's skirts and a condemned warrior's suit. In the opera's famously dramatic finale, the doomed lovers, Aida and Radames, glow like human flashlights as they head off to eternity in their burial tomb.
"Aida" is among the grandest of grand operas. It was commissioned by the Egyptian government to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. The star-crossed triangle -- the enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida, her beloved warrior Radames, commander of the conquering Egyptian army, and a powerful but unloved pharaoh's daughter, Amneris -- debuted at the Cairo Opera in 1871.
On Wednesday, the spurned Amneris collapsed dramatically, her billowing dress lighting up like a cloud in an electrical storm. As the singer, Marianne Cornetti, sprawled in the sand, the costume designer, Alberto Spiazzi, leaped onstage to confer with her. After some flapping of garment, Cornetti rose and collapsed again. From the sidelines, a nexus of red light was visible beneath the folds of the dress. Had there been a technical malfunction, or was the character really dying of a broken heart?
That such visuals work, and exactly how they work, may be the Washington Opera's grandest technical triumph. Domingo took to the stage to make two announcements at the start of the rehearsal. He warned the few hundred people present, including trustees, volunteers, staff, students and others, that the snowstorm had delayed practice by several days. More importantly to serious opera fans, he promised that there would be "no amplification other than" the microphone he held in his hand. An elaborate sound system the opera installed as a precaution was not turned on.
"Part of this finding for us is how this house is," he said.
Washington Opera has moved to Constitution Hall during renovation of its quarters at the Kennedy Center. The hall, which now accommodates 2,900 people, had to be reconfigured to handle the theatrical and acoustical requirements. Eighteen rows of seats were removed and the stage was extended. There is no orchestra pit. Thus, every now and then during the performance, curtains will part at the back of the stage to reveal a live conductor and musicians playing their hearts out behind the scenes. There was almost too much going on at rehearsal for people in the front rows to notice the frieze of states' names peeking out from the rotunda: Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Hampshire.
Domingo believes the use of novelties, from Micciche's projects to Luminex costumes, is justified by the challenge of working at DAR, where "we don't have the advantage of a stage where you can do proper scenery."
A production of "Aida" in Shanghai a few years ago included an elephant, lions, tigers and racing chariots in the triumphal march, which celebrates the victory of Thebes over Ethiopia. New York's Metropolitan Opera has so far eschewed elephants. But its current production, which debuted in 1988 with Domingo in the role of Radames, still includes a horse or two.
Domingo, who worked the crowd of Washington Opera insiders between acts, brought up the comparison himself.
"This production is not overcharged," he said. "There are no elephants."
He added that "to do 'Aida' in a real theater, you will have to spend at least $1 million, maybe $1.5 million. This will be less for sure."
Micciche is motivated by modernity. With centuries of opera in his cultural genetic code, he is seeking to take an old art form "another step forward." After a rehearsal Thursday afternoon, he led the way up under the eaves to a cramped cavity between ceiling and roof. That's where the technology that makes his scenography possible has been installed. Micciche had not been up there before. He bent over double on the catwalk to avoid pipes and massive ducts. The journey was worth the effort. At the uppermost end of Constitution Hall, he showed off a row of six computer-controlled, fully rotational projectors, each scrolling two rolls of 30-meter-long film. Micciche used nine such projectors to stage "Madame Butterfly," a production that led Domingo to call him.
Micciche does not argue with the use of traditional proscenium, wings and curtains. He simply believes opera is relevant enough to stay attuned to the times. Right now, that means accommodating a visually sophisticated audience with a more Hollywood-esque approach.
"The big question is not how Verdi staged the opera," he says, "but to figure out how Verdi would like it staged now."
When "Aida" was created, the incandescent light bulb was in its infancy. Now, costume makers can play with woven fiber optics.
"To have a character with his own light, to express his own emotion" is part of the new age, Micciche says.
On Thursday, only a few people remained in the theater in late afternoon. There were no musicians, and the lights were up. A man and woman clustered on the stage with Domingo and Micciche. It was soprano Maria Guleghina and tenor Franco Farina, pacing a love scene in street clothes. She was the picture of modernity in head-to-toe black leather, Aida as biker chick. As for Farina, who plays Radames, he dropped smoothly on bended knee in faded denim jeans.
But for the slush, they looked ready to hop on a Harley and roar off to eternity.