Aida at Lyric Opera of Chicago Review - A Not-So-Modern Love Story

Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcello Giordani. Photo by Dan Rest

Modern love stories on television and film have disabused me of the notion that love must be perfect. That said, the common outcome in the modern romantic paradigm includes a ‘happily ever after’, or at the very least an ‘ah, you were better without each other, and this journey has exposed all of the reasons why’. To a modern viewer, this outcome may come off as trite to the point of being cloying, but traditional concepts of romantic stories usually had a much more sinister connotation. Happily ever afters were fewer and further between in traditional romances, and invariably one or both of the lovers would meet grisly and tragic fates. Such is the tone of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic Aida, performed during Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2011 – 2012 season.

Act One, Scene Two, Radames at the Temple of Vulcan. Photo by Dan Rest

Despite the religious and political backdrops of the narrative, Aida is at its heart a love story. Set in the time of ancient Egypt, Aida tells the story of the valiant Egyptian soldier Radames and his love of the captive Ethiopian slave Aida, who is owned by the fawning and jealous princess Amneris. Aida is torn between the man she loves and her homeland where she is a princess. Each step Radames takes toward victory for Egypt means one step closer to the destruction of Aida’s people. Additionally, a jealous Amneris vows vengeance if her love is spurned. Aida is forced to confront this dilemma directly when the Ethiopian King Amonasro enters Cairo as Radames' prisoner and discovers Aida, eventually forcing her to pry military secrets from Radames. When Aida and Radames plan to flee Egypt together, Radames inadvertently reveals information to Amonasro, and when Amneris discovers the treason and also proof of the love affair, turns Radames in for trial. Radames is convicted of treason and sentenced to be buried alive, but he does not realize that before the tomb was closed Aida was able to conceal herself within, allowing the two star crossed lovers to die in each other’s embrace.

Act Two, Scene Two, Pharaoh Oversees a Victory Celebration. Photo by Dan Rest

Verdi’s attention to drama and theatrics is abundant in Aida. Commissioned for a high ranking Egyptian official for performance in 1871, early stagings were lavish and often included casts of hundreds, parading elephants and other animals. Though they spared the menagerie, Lyric is not skimpy on the spectacle. Through a combination of enormous, gorgeously painted backdrops and sprawling set pieces, the already spacious Lyric stage becomes even more expansive. The audience is seamlessly transported from the streets of Cairo to cavernous temples to claustrophobic tombs.  During the victory procession in Act II, Pharaoh is carried in on a throne twelve feet tall, surrounded by dancers, warriors, slaves, fanfare, and scads of townspeople. Throughout the opera the dancers add wonderful pomp and pageantry to an already vivacious staging.

Sondra Radvanovsky, Jill Grove, Aida cast. Photo by Dan Rest

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky masterfully performed the emotionally and physically demanding title role. Aida’s torment is visceral, translating to powerfully dynamic vocals and heart-wrenchingly beautiful tone. Even during the most manic and sweeping arias, the forceful silence Radvanovsky creates in the pianissimo passages are chilling, and fully accentuate the character’s deep emotional state. A wonderful complement to Radvanovsky is the bright, crisp, and powerful tenor of Marcello Giordani as Radames. Though his character is a touch one-dimensional, Giordani infuses the role with passion and feeling, and similarly stuns with his sonorous tone and decibel maxing fortissimos.

Jill Grove, Sondra Radvanovsky. Photo by Dan Rest

Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove captures the complex emotions of Amneris beautifully. Amneris is a deeply conflicted character that is both confident and insecure, powerful and wildly jealous of the love between Aida and Radames. Amneris’ jealousy is ultimately more fatal to Radames than active combat, and yet Amneris truly loves Radames, and shows fragility and tenderness when not blinded by rage. Grove’s performance allowed the audience to feel brief moments of sympathy towards this generally despicable character. Another standout was Gordon Hawkins as Amonasro, whose booming baritone was impressive despite his character’s relatively short stage time.

Gordon Hawkins, Sondra Radvanovsky. Photo by Dan Rest

Aida at the Lyric Opera is an absolute must-see, and thankfully there are no Valentine’s Day performances. It may be doom and gloom for the star-crossed lovers, but with beautiful music and staging and wonferfully engaging characters, Verdi is sure to help along your own personal 'happy ever after'.

Marcello Giordani. Photo by Dan Rest

Aida is running performances through March 25. First-cast performances are through February 8, with the second cast performing March 6 - 25. Tickets and showtimes are available through the Lyric Opera Box Office 312-332-2244 or by visiting www.lyricopera.org  Aida is performed in Italian with projected English translations, with a runtime of approximately three hours and forty minutes.

Marcello Giordani, Aida cast. Photo by Dan Rest

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