- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

Lights. Camera. Action. It's Hollywood on the Potomac. The Washington Opera opened its brand new production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" this past weekend at its transformed temporary digs in DAR Constitution Hall. Opera in this town may never be the same again.
Due to space and mechanical limitations in the newly renovated hall, this is a production that eschews the usual lavish props. Instead, audiences are being introduced to innovative "virtual scenery" conceived and developed by director Paolo Micciche. His concept includes imaginatively choreographed projected images and visually stunning, if sometimes unwieldy, opto-electric costuming deployed by designer Alberto Spiazzi.
By now you've probably heard how a new electro-mechanical system has been hung from Constitution Hall's huge ceiling to provide lighting, sound enhancement, if necessary (it wasn't for "Aida"), and scaffolding for a small crew of daredevil techies. It's hard to miss noticing that the first 18 rows of seats were removed to provide a large jut-stage for the action, with space for the orchestra behind instead of in the traditional pit. But what no one knew until opening night was how this and Mr. Micciche's nontraditional "sets" would work in a live performance before a full house.
In the main, the renovation has worked far better than anyone could have expected. The hall's drafty acoustics have been improved to an impressive degree, although the sound is noticeably drier and less warm than in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Unobtrusively placed TV monitors helped the singers stay in-tempo, and things only got out of control once or twice. The new arrangement also brings the singers up front and center, in contrast to traditional opera houses, enabling the audience to hear their voices with unexpected clarity. The action seemed far more intimate than it does in the Opera House. Even the bleacher seats in Constitution Hall, steeply raked, have excellent sightlines, and the pushed-out stage brings the singers closer to the least expensive seats. Sightlines from the orchestra seats are more problematic.
Air handling was something else, however. The auditorium felt a little like Cairo in the summertime. The balconies most of the hall were a sauna, and several patrons experienced physical difficulties. After our arctic winter, it was nice to be warm for a change, but the audience might have been more comfortable in Hawaiian shirts and halter tops rather than tuxes and gowns.
Returning to the stage, Paolo Micciche's "scenery" is far more colorful and lavish than any opera company could afford to build, and yet it is nonexistent projected artwork in motion that both reflects the action and riffs on it. From bright blues and golds in the triumphal entries, it morphs to muted greens in forest scenes and a slightly hackneyed blood when violence looms. This scenery leading edge yet oddly traditional gives gimmickry a good name. It manages to enhance the action and the music while drawing surprisingly little attention to itself, once you get used to it.
Alberto Spiazzi's costuming ranged from the magnificent to the intriguing. Most of his costumes, including some great Egyptian headpieces, served to reflect the prevailing imagery. His Luminex outfits, on the other hand, consisted primarily of this new, self-illuminating fiber-optic cloth. They pulsated in bright primary colors, meant to project inner emotions. The idea is engaging, but its execution involved trade-offs of dubious value. In her penultimate scene, for example, Princess Amneris' chasuble-like outfit glowed blood-red on cue, but the fabric itself was stiff and unforgiving, forcing mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti to struggle valiantly against it to keep it under control. As Aida, soprano Maria Guleghina also battled bravely with her Luminex cowl as she and her lover sang their last in a cold Egyptian tomb.
The singing in this production was first class. Bass Hao Jiang Tian (Ramfis, the high priest) and bass-baritone John Marcus Brindel (King of Egypt) were fine in supporting roles. So, too was baritone Mark Delaven as Aida's father Amonasro, as he projected the right mix of nationalism and warriorlike menace. As the princess Amneris, torn between love and the desire for power, warm-voiced mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti expressed a wide range of emotions with dramatic flair. As is sometimes the case with mezzo parts, however, the orchestra occasionally took her out of the picture in the ensembles. Tenor Franco Farina sang the role of the betrayed warrior Radames with dignity, although without much nuance; he was more believable as a soldier than a lover. However, he sounded quite good in this occasionally tricky acoustic environment, particularly in his closing duet with Aida.
In the title role, soprano Maria Guleghina was compelling. Conflicted, passionate, her Aida is forced to make a devil's bargain with father and country while somehow not betraying Radames. The discovery of her ruse brings the opera to its tragic denouement, and Miss Guleghina wrings every last bit of emotion out of the shifting scenery of Aida's life. Her low notes are distinctive in their clarity and force.
The Washington Opera Chorus seems to get better and better. Challenged by the lack of a visible conductor front and center, the singers were adept at picking up their tempi from the monitors, and their singing was virtually flawless, if occasionally muted in this auditorium. The chorus, in combination with extra trumpets entering from the sides of the auditorium, projected a viscerally exciting triumphal march, even without real horses and elephants clomping through the scenery, as is sometimes done in "Aida" productions.
Rarely mentioned, except when they screw up, is an opera's technical staff, but this production could not have been brought off without a highly skilled batch of backstagers and techies pulling the levers, twirling the dials, and watching what seemed like two dozen monitors. So a hat tip to these unsung heroes who choreographed and conducted their high-tech equipment like a second orchestra.

****
WHAT: The Washington Opera's new production of Verdi's "Aida"
WHERE: DAR Constitution Hall, 18th and D streets NW
WHEN: Today, 2 p.m.; Monday, 7 p.m.; March 8, March 11, 7:30 p.m.
TICKETS: $41 to $285.
PHONE: 202/295-2400.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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