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Premiered in Egypt in late 1871 and brought home to Milan less than two months later, Giuseppe Verdi's Aïda has become synonymous with all that's grandiose and spectacular in grand opera. Opera Carolina has now produced this signature work nine times since its founding in 1948, only once allowing more than a decade to go by between productions. An eight-year interval is about the average in Charlotte, which we would have had if the current production has arrived, as originally scheduled, at the end of the 2020-21 season. The postponement seemed to benefit the design team responsible for the visuals; set designer Roberto Oswald, costumer Annibal Lapiz, and lighting designer Michael Baumgarten; all of whom collaborated on the 2013 production here at Belk Theater. A year further in the distance, deferred by the pandemic, this Aïda was perhaps fresher and certainly more welcome.
With the exception of the Opera Carolina Chorus and baritone Mark Rucker reprising his Amonasro, the Ethiopian king, all of the faces onstage were new, especially tenor Arnold Rawls, substituting for the indisposed Gianluca Sciarpeletti as Radames on short notice. Infusing more freshness, almost upstaging the principals in the big scenes, were the elegant touches and classic symmetries of stage director Linda Brovsky and choreographer Gabriella Sevillano with dancers from Corta Jaca. Once again, Ancient Egypt was a no-twerking zone, graced with processions and tableaus that jibed with the times. Conducting his Verdi with customary panache, artistic director James Meena discreetly scaled back on the brassiness of the triumphal scene, recognizing that a parade of subdued Ethiopian prisoners, fettered in chains, isn't the most glorious spectacle in 2022, when images of wartime destruction clutter our news media.
Intertwined with the spectacle indoors and outdoors, in the blaze of day and the hush of night, was a poignant love triangle, heightened by the scintillating debut of mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin as Amneris, the cunning, jealous, amorous, and conflicted princess of Egypt. The smoothness of her arias, particularly the "Vieni amor mio" anticipating Radames's arrival in Act 2, nicely chimed with her cool and confident manner, for once making the prospect of someday reigning with her over Egypt worth considering for the undeniably ambitious Radames. Conquering this princess's heart was on a par with conquering Ethiopia. Also tilting the triangle, presumably because of a lack of rehearsal, was the slow-to-ignite chemistry between Rawls as Radames and Karen Slack, making her Charlotte debut as Aïda.
Launching his debut, Rawls didn't show us all he can do vocally in his "Celeste Aïda," and Slack similarly fell short on the self-reproachful "Ritorna vincitor!" – too nervous and melodramatic in realizing that a victory for her beloved Radames meant defeat for her native Ethiopia, and possibly death for her father, the king. More vulnerability and youthful confusion were needed here, and we never had a vivid impression that Aïda was observing even demure caution, let alone simulating deference, in keeping her royal identity from her mistress, Amneris. After intermission, both Slack and Rawls ascended to loftier levels, achieving parity with Martin. I was frankly surprised – and delighted – by how beautifully Slack sang the iconic "O patria mia" aria in the pivotal nocturnal scene in front of the Temple of Isis. The missing chemistry between Slack and Rawls then arrived with such a rush that it seemed like Aïda might forget to coax Radames into divulging his key military secret to the eavesdropping Amonasro. Martin and Rucker helped this denouement to crackle with tension, though Rucker wasn't quite as imperious and intimidating as he was in 2013.
So, the unique two-tiered finale played really well, with all three principals in top form. Rawls and Slack, buried alive as the lovers, consoled each other sweetly in their love duet as Aïda managed to sneak into the tomb and share Radames's punishment for betraying his country. Meanwhile, Martin completed Amneris' graceful arc above them, remorseful for triggering the downfalls of her beloved and her rival, wishing both of them peace. Credit Brovsky and Sevillano for the stateliness and elegance of the public scenes, the one at the Temple of Vulcan, where the beneficence of Ptah is invoked, and the triumphal scene where Pharoah and Amneris preside. Song Zaikuan was a resplendent Pharoah, Jordan Bisch declaimed with stony certitude as Ramfis, the high priest, and Katherine Kuckelman was a sublime High Priestess – all in costumes to die for.
With both a matinee and an evening performance scheduled for Saturday, this review serves as a reliable guide to the upcoming evening encore. Only Bisch and Zaikuan will be on hand for the Saturday matinee. See our sidebar for details.