Aline from an early Noel Coward song -- "There's life in the old girl yet!" -- kept flashing through my mind as the Washington Opera presented its inaugural performance at DAR Constitution Hall on Saturday night.
The famously dowdy auditorium, which opened in 1929 as a venue designed for nothing more complicated than lectures, conventions and an occasional concert, seemed an improbable stopgap for the Washington Opera during the year-long renovation of its permanent home in the Kennedy Center. Still, throw in a $2.5 million overhaul, upgrade the acoustics, build a new stage stretching 18 rows out into the auditorium, mount a creative and often visually stunning production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" and -- presto change-o! -- Washington has a new opera house.
It is, to be sure, an unusual space for music theater. Because Constitution Hall has no orchestra pit, the Washington Opera Orchestra musicians were forced to play up on the stage itself, behind the sets and singers. The conductor, Heinz Fricke, kept track of the action by watching a monitor near his podium, while the singers followed his beat through television screens located along the footlights. Conductor and orchestra were mostly invisible to the audience, hidden behind a scrim, but Verdi's characters -- the guilt-wracked Ethiopian slave girl Aida and her ardent lover Radames -- lived out their doomed, tuneful lives only a few feet from the nearest spectators. Despite the Rube Goldberg chain of events required to make this all come together, the result was opera of rare immediacy.
Director Paolo Micciche has created what he calls a "virtual set" of projected images that metamorphose throughout the evening -- now stark black-and-white hieroglyphs, now a riot of golden sarcophagi, now a blood-red river. In most operatic productions, the sets stand still and the characters move; in this "Aida," the situation is all but reversed. It is, if you like, a sort of operatic gloss on the theory of relativity. All is fluid, mercurial, dizzyingly alive, an entire world conjured from six 7,000-watt projectors at the top of Constitution Hall.
The idea of mating and melding film projections and live action in this manner is not a new one; Philip Glass and Jerome Sirlin were doing something similar with "1,000 Airplanes on the Roof" as far back as 1988. But it is remarkable how effective the technique has become, and in the best moments of this "Aida," experiment has been advanced to the level of calm assurance. The characters swim freely in their own multidimensional universe, one that we inhabit with them for the duration of the opera.
Nobody will ever mistake Constitution Hall for any sort of acoustical exemplar. In general, the orchestra still sounds like a phonograph record being played far, far away. And yet the resultant tone, although dim, was balanced throughout the sections, and one could, with concentration, make out most of the details of Verdi's orchestration. (I sat in Row H, on the main floor of the theater; three of my colleagues, in different stations of the hall, offer their preliminary assessments today as well.) Fricke led the newly renamed Washington Opera Orchestra and Chorus with his customary mixture of propulsion and nuance; his continued presence in this troupe is a boon to our musical community.
Maria Guleghina made a vivid, exciting Aida. Her voice is large, dark, versatile and charged with emotional intensity; moreover, she has presence. Her high notes are occasionally uneasy but they always come through eventually, and her declamatory singing is sometimes thrilling. I liked her in wild-eyed, supercharged numbers such as "Ritorna vincitor" more than I did in a sustained lyrical utterance such as "O patria mia," but the impression she left was overwhelmingly favorable. For all of her Ukrainian heritage, Guleghina has Verdi in her veins.
Tenor Franco Farina, who sang the role of Radames, has improved vastly in the dozen or so years he has been singing in the better houses. His pitch sense is now assured; he sings with a generous, ringing tone, and his acting is dignified and conscientious. I still find Farina a rather prosaic interpreter -- even commanders of the ancient Egyptian army must have proffered a little charm now and then -- but he did his part.
Baritone Mark Delavan was nothing less than riveting as Aida's father, Amonasro. He sang with urgency, power and the utmost gravity: As the enslaved king of Ethiopia, he reminded me of a captured lion, battered but unbowed. Mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti sang the role of Amneris with a warm, burnished luster. She occasionally was drowned out in the early ensembles with Guleghina and Farina but did a splendid, multidimensional turn in the climactic scene of the final act, winning one of the strongest ovations of the evening in the process. There was worthy support from Hao Jiang Tian as Ramfis, John Marcus Bindel as the King of Egypt, Barbara Quintiliani as the Priestess and Matthew Ryan Wolff as the Messenger. The choreography was by Nilas Martins.
All in all, it was a good evening to have been at the opera. Confronted with the challenge of a year in exile in a less-than-optimal venue, the Washington Opera has met the test with energy and imagination. One innovation fell flat, however -- the incorporation of a "new fiber-optic self-illuminating textile" called Luminex, which was supposed to "reveal the inner emotions of the opera's characters" through glowing lights within and without their costumes. And so Radames and Aida burned blue in their final duet, while Amneris's inner rage was represented in a reddish light that made the princess look like cotton candy personified. In this context, Luminex seemed little more than a weird, ungainly fashion accessory, no more profound or meaningful than a mood ring.
"Aida" will be repeated tonight, Wednesday, Saturday and on March 3, 8 and 11. Call 202-295-2400 or visit dc-opera.org