- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

The Washington Opera's debut of "Aida" at DAR Constitution Hall Saturday was District Mayor Anthony A. Williams' first truly social night on the town since the snowstorm struck. It also was popular Italian Ambassador Ferdinando Salleo's last public appearance after seven years en poste.

How fitting, then, to have the city show itself culturally proud with an innovative, technologically inspired production of the Verdi classic in a challenging new setting (while the Kennedy Center Opera House is being renovated) that required immense creative skills and ingenuity from all concerned.

"A magic team," in the words of Placido Domingo, the opera's artistic director.

The old hall, with no orchestra pit and famously poor acoustics, was transformed to the tune of $2.5 million with a thrust stage and upgraded sound devices that allowed singers to perform without amplification. With no way to hang theater sets, Italian production director and designer Paolo Micciche used colorful visual images of tremendous power delivered by computer projection onto moving scrims. Ancient Egypt came alive in a new dimension a virtual-reality world.

"Spectacular … Giuseppe Verdi would be proud," opera Chairman James Kimsey remarked with obvious delight at the late-night gala supper in the neighboring Organization of American States headquarters after the show.

Pressed, Mr. Williams an opera soprano's son went out on a limb, calling it "the best 'Aida' I've ever seen." (He also heard himself praised by Mr. Kimsey as someone "without whose help streets would not have been plowed.")

Mr. Salleo, a veteran of 10 versions of "Aida," diplomatically pronounced it "superb," going out of his way to say that Ukrainian soprano Maria Guleghina was "wonderful."

The Salleos are leaving the country today for retirement in Rome. Anna Maria Salleo said her last act as ambassador's wife would be at lunch today with first lady Laura Bush.

Many firsts were achieved Saturday. One was the world theatrical debut of a new fiber-optic self-illuminating fabric called Luminex, worn to effect in one scene by mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti as the pharaoh's daughter Amneris.

The Washington Opera also, Mr. Kimsey noted, has the distinction of being the country's only opera company that was in the black last year. A pleased Michael Sonnenreich, opera president, noted that the company had signed a broadcast contract with National Public Radio for airing productions nationally.

So much to celebrate, so little time. Dinner, which was more family affair than fund-raiser, went on past 1 a.m., until the last piece of baklava and cardamom shortbread on the Mediterranean-themed menu had been consumed.

If Mr. Micciche admitted privately he was not entirely happy ("A director is never happy," he said) because of some minor mishap having to do with air conditioning backstage, and Mr. Domingo confessed to some worries about getting the cast on and off a curtainless stage, most of some 240 dinner guests bubbled over with enthusiasm, including production underwriter Betty Casey, the opera's life chairman.

"Young people will be more interested in going to opera now … This is what they are used to," she said.

"The New Yorkers are going to come here now," exclaimed Samia Farouki. Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small was intrigued to discover that the Washington debut of "Aida" took place at the National Theatre in April 1874, just three years after its world premiere in Cairo.

"I liked the battle scenes," Tony Podesta commented wryly. If war talk is in the air elsewhere, at least the troops in "Aida" were mainly illusions on fast-paced scrolling scrims. The dancing and the costumes were the more diverting human elements.

(Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been scheduled to attend but canceled at the last minute.)

The majority of guests at the cast party were opera company officials and friends. In addition to Italy, the ambassadorial contingent included Austria, Mexico, Kuwait and Afghanistan. Other supporters included Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Queen Noor, Sandra Payson, Lucky Roosevelt, Evelyn and Charles DiBona, Ina Ginsburg (who hosted the last of the Salleos' farewell dinners Sunday night), Lolo Sarnoff, Joe Robert and Mandell and Mary Ourisman.

It was left to Mr. Domingo to say the final word. "This has been a colossal you have that word in English? work of the company. More than ever, the team's work has been stronger," he enthused.

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