Retna, the street artist, makes works based on his own distinctive alphabet, a combination of black-letter, hieroglyphics, Hebrew, and several other languages and fonts. It's at once impenetrable and approachable: You're not supposed to understand it, but it's pretty. Just like opera, you might say, or at least, the way opera thinks of itself these days; and thus it was that Retna designed sets for "Aida," which opened at the Washington National Opera on Saturday night.
If only opera let itself be as easy as Retna's fluid, ornamental work. Francesca Zambello directed the production, which opened at the San Francisco Opera last fall, updating the action to some timeless, more modern era and contrasting the aggressive militarism of the men with the softer lives of the women who were at their mercy. (In the boudoir of the Egyptian princess Amneris, the tittering attendants were accompanied by their sons, boys in military uniforms who performed a wonderful little dance channeling their bounding, cartwheeling energy into pantomimes of aggression, for which they were praised and petted by their mothers.) But overall, the whole enterprise was heavier and more grandiloquent than it needed to be.
Verdi is all about big emotions and big voices. Evan Rogister, the evening's conductor, grabbed on to the "big," setting the tone with a reading of the overture that sounded huge and Romantic and not very dramatic or Verdian: smoothing and streamlining the whole thing, giving it room to breathe, bringing out middle voices as if it were a symphony. Well and good, but his leisurely tempos (which sometimes got slower as he went along) brought stasis to the drama and made it harder on the singers. I saw both casts this weekend, and at the start of Sunday's performance I might have said that Sunday's leads had a slight edge — particularly Leah Crocetto, who kept a bloom and freshness to her singing even in the biggest passages. But Rogister's slow pace in Acts III and IV drained the vocal tanks of Crocetto, the sturdy if leathery-voiced tenor Carl Tanner as Radamès, and the somewhat overdone, dark-toned Amneris of Marina Prudenskaya, so the opera's second half didn't have quite the oomph of the first.
There were no such problems with the first cast, who seemed able to make loud sounds all night long. The last time I heard Yonghoon Lee, who made his WNO debut as Radamès, it was many years ago in a student production of "The Magic Flute" at the Mannes School of Music in New York; I wrote that he sounded more like a Radamès than a Tamino, and feared ridicule, so I was amused to hear him as Radamès at our next encounter. There's no question that the voice is that of a true Radamès, in size, heft and color, and he made some beautiful sounds, and even, in the fourth act, some tender ones. But his opening aria, "Celeste Aida," was off-putting, belted out, with mechanical-sounding phrasing and some questionable intonation (something that plagued the leads in both casts at a couple of key junctures). Tamara Wilson showed some stridency as Aida but sang with commitment, and Ekaterina Semenchuk was a regal and campy Amneris.
All of the singers, though, conveyed a kind of dogged earnestness that has become prevalent in opera, as young artists struggle to do justice to larger-than-life themes, supported on training that emphasizes a long litany of "don'ts." The most spirit came from the singers who reprised their roles both nights. Soloman Howard was an impressive, youthful king; Morris Robinson, as the high priest, Ramfis, looking like an obdurate Cossack in his odd hat, sang strongly while bristling with implacable religious fervor in an all-too-timely portrayal. As for Amonasro, Aida's imprisoned father, Gordon Hawkins brought dignity, feeling and a big sound despite a patchy instrument with a developing wobble. I'd rather hear this portrayal than that of someone who was trying too hard.
An unexpected highlight was Jessica Lang's choreography, woven through the work: restrained and traditional, with dancers in white dresses and uniforms executing balletic steps and numbers, but adding a breath of fresh air to an evening that needed it, and that even Retna's attractive, stylized surfaces, lit in reds and whites and golds, couldn't quite provide. In an interview some days before opening night, Retna said he was intimidated by approaching opera, and that Zambello finally encouraged him to go back to doing things he'd already done. Leaving aside the question of whether a set designer should offer meaningful collaboration or just pretty backdrops, the artist's reaction typifies the attitude too many people have toward this genre. The current production checks many boxes, and is in many ways respectable, but it doesn't offer anything fresh enough to break down that sense of intimidation — even among the singers.
"Aida" continues through Sept. 23 at the Washington National Opera. The performance on Sept. 23 will be broadcast live to Nationals Park as this year's iteration of "Opera in the Outfield," free of charge.