August Everding, the German stage director and impresario, once said it is the right of everyone to fall in love with bad opera. That happened to me on Friday night at the Virginia Opera’s thoroughly enjoyable “Aida.”
Everding was referring to Germany, where young people may get their first exposure to opera at one of the dozens of small local houses around the country. The Virginia Opera’s “Aida,” which finished its three-city run this weekend at George Mason University, had some of the hallmarks of the provincialism that Everding meant by “bad opera,” from the moment the aging tenor took the stage in a Cher-like wig and a lamé costume that made him look as if he were wearing Liberace’s bathrobe.
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.
Opera in Virginia has been going through turbulent times of late. The Virginia Opera’s last season was dominated by the departure of its founding director, Peter Mark, whose contract was terminated early after an acrimonious dispute with the board. Mark has now founded his own company, the Lyric Opera of Virginia, which opened in September with a production of “La Traviata” in Virginia Beach. Mark tended to dream big, and “Aida” looked like yet another project — like last year’s “Die Walküre” — where he had pushed the company to bite off more than it could decently chew.
But this “Aida” validated both Mark’s goals and the current Virginia Opera. Moments of unconscious parody — the Grand March, enacted by eight dancers in sequined animal masks, looked like a Vegas evocation of Carnival in Venice — were again and again redeemed by a singer’s ardor or a thoughtful touch from Groag. An example: at the end of Radames and Amneris’s big fight in Act IV, when he rejects her love and says he would rather die for Aida than live with her, Radames, on his way offstage, suddenly turned, knelt by Amneris and gently kissed her hand.
The epitome of the greatness of supposedly “bad” opera was Jeniece Golbourne’s Amneris, who flung herself into the role with breathtaking conviction and took great vocal risks that sometimes resulted in impressive singing and at other times in complete belly-flops.
An example of the latter was her Act II entrance, when she yanked back a curtain and, singing of her daydreams about Radames, emitted a sound like a squawking chicken (a belly-flop that didn’t keep her from playing the rest of the scene with gusto as her character yanked the loincloth off a male dancer, leaving him in his briefs while she gleefully brandished her trophy). Fully impressive, by contrast, was the far more difficult fourth act, when she dug deep into her chest register, hurled out notes with blazing fury and fiercely rolled Rs, and showed that her top notes worked better when she was consumed with passion.
Larger opera houses these days tend to shy away from this kind of wild temperament, decrying such erraticism or even wackiness. But this is an aspect of opera that has inflamed opera lovers for centuries — and the opera world today could use a lot more of it.