Mobilizing ‘Aida’ on a (what else?) grand scale
“Stand by, elephants!” The elephants in question were gath-
ered in a habitat that’s unusually elegant -- the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The herd awaited its cue from a stage manager directing traffic at a Los Angeles Opera rehearsal for “Aida,” the grandest of the grand in opera repertory, the elephant of operas -- literally and figuratively.
At “Aida’s” 1871 world premiere in Cairo, 12 elephants joined a double chorus in the scene welcoming a brave soldier’s return from battle. In Shanghai’s uber-performance of the Verdi classic in 2000, the elephants had even more company: camels, lions, tigers, boas, horses and parrots, not to mention 3,000 singers, dancers, acrobats and behind-the-scenes technicians.
Actually, live elephants aren’t part of the grand design of L.A. Opera’s co-production with the Houston Grand Opera, which opens Saturday. Little things such as downtown traffic and other elephant-unfriendly logistics have necessitated the use of plastic pachyderms.
Nonetheless, “Aida” towers over the repertory as an audience favorite, making it a starting point for those interested but uninitiated in the joys of opera. (The Italian libretto is even translated in English supertitles projected above the stage at the Music Center.)
The opera has been a hit since its debut 130 years ago -- enough time to generate its own mythology. A common misconception is that Giuseppe Verdi, famous for operas that set stirring melodies against tragic situations, wrote “Aida” in honor of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Verdi actually refused a commission to compose music for that celebration, but at the request of the Turkish khedive (ruler) of Egypt, he agreed to compose a work exalting the country’s history for the opening of the Cairo Opera House two years later. In the wake of its enormously successful premiere, Verdi was awarded the title “Commendatore of the Ottoman Order,” and the opera was staged at 155 houses around the world in the next 10 years.
“Aida” tells the tale of an Ethiopian princess who is enslaved by her Egyptian counterpart, Amneris. Both princesses are in love with the Egyptian warrior Radames, but his heart belongs to Aida. When Egypt and Ethiopia go to war, Radames sets out to lead his army to victory so the Egyptian king will reward him with anything Radames desires -- and he desires freedom for his beloved Aida. He wins the war and the couple unite, but Aida is torn between her love for Radames and her love for her father and homeland. When Radames unknowingly spills a military secret in her father’s presence, the warrior is tried as a traitor. Amneris offers to save him if he will marry her but he refuses. In the end, Aida volunteers to share his fate.
The work is a striking example of the French grand opera tradition that pits human struggles against a soaring political backdrop.
Part of its appeal lies in its sheer scale: In this million-dollar production, the 72-person chorus is joined by eight soloists, 21 dancers, and 22 non-singing actors, who are transformed by 19 wig and makeup people and 12 handling wardrobe, plus 83 musicians.
“It’s impressive from beginning to end,” said Vera Lucia Calabria, who directs the current revival. “The mixture of total emotion, which is what Aida represents, set against a political situation -- sometimes that contrast is breathtaking. And you can remember and hum the Verdi melodies.”
If that’s not enough to entice you into a night at the opera, consider this: Choreographer Peggy Hickey describes “Aida’s” battle dance as “the most technically dangerous ballet we’ve ever done.”
Then there’s the shield surfing required on the part of Franco Farina, the tenor cast as Radames, the conquering hero. During the recent rehearsal, he wandered the backstage corridors decked out in Egyptian warrior wear, after practicing his entrance balancing on a giant shield hoisted by eight chorus members.
Like most of the other principal soloists, Farina has sung his role many times around the world. At New York’s Metropolitan Opera, he arrived onstage in a horse-drawn chariot. In a Geneva production set in the present, he jumped off a moving jeep. But shield surfing was a first.
“As long as nobody drops it, I’m fine,” he said cheerily. “If one guy goes, we’re in trouble. One of the guys kept tripping on his cape. That was an interesting moment or two.”
Michele Crider, the acclaimed soprano making her L.A. Opera debut in the title role as Radames’ captive lover, has tactical problems of her own. She’ll be singing the role eight months pregnant, so she won’t be able to move around much onstage. In the three-hour opera, Crider will kneel down only twice: In one scene, another singer is there to help her up. In the other, she’s dying so she’s not getting up anyway.
Crider tried to be a good sport about meeting the usual requirements of the role, and during rehearsals she tried to assure Calabria that she’d be able to move and kneel on command.
“Oh, it’s fine,” she told the director.
“But can you get up?” Calabria asked.
“It’s fine,” Crider answered.
“Yeah,” Calabria responded, “but can you get up in four weeks?” (Crider is expected to perform in all nine performances, through Feb. 19.)
“Aida” may have been performed countless times since its debut, inaugurating the opening of the Cairo Opera House, but each production presents fresh challenges.
The curtain first went up on this “Aida” in 1987 at the opening of the Wortham Opera Center in Houston. For its Texas premiere, Pier Luigi Pizzi, a prominent Italian director and designer, created a spare set with monumental lines, oversize elements and vertical columns.
The production had been co-commissioned under L.A. Opera’s late founding general director, Peter Hemmings, and it opened the company’s 2000-2001 season at the Music Center.
By the time the Pizzi set and costumes arrived here, the production had already been revived four times in Texas. That meant an additional $250,000 investment in refurbishment, which included new wigs and costumes as well as alterations on a grand scale.
For the title role, L.A. Opera brought in Metropolitan Opera habitue Deborah Voigt. But while the production was generally well received by critics, several complained that her booming voice overpowered the role, bereft of the delicate coloration required of a suffering Aida. Worse, the dark stage makeup that was supposed to transform the blond soprano into an Ethiopian princess didn’t do her any favors. One critic snipped that she looked “as authentically African as Pee-wee Herman with a spear.”
That won’t happen this year. Crider, an African American, has made Aida a signature role in opera houses in the U.S. and Europe, and she’s considered among the world’s top five sopranos identified with Verdi’s favorite princess.
“I think it’s a very beautiful role,” Crider says. “It takes a lot of understanding, not only from a vocal standpoint but in developing the character. You can interpret her in many different ways: She can be a proud princess in camouflage trying to sustain herself, or she’s poor and pathetic and doesn’t know what to do, torn between love of country and father and love of her fiance Radames.
“I like to play her as a strong woman in camouflage. She’s still a princess, no matter what happens.”
In the 2004-2005 season alone, Crider has sung the role in Berlin, Brussels and Dresden, Germany, in addition to Los Angeles. This may be her first time on a stage here, but it will be old home week for her in the tiny world of opera stars. In September, Crider sang the role at Berlin’s Staatsoper with Farina as Radames and Irina Mishura as Aida’s rival Amneris. Mishura reprises the role in Los Angeles.
For singers who make a career out of signature roles, so many encores can be a challenge in themselves. But Farina says that every production is different.
“When you do these operas over and over again, the interesting thing is you have to adjust things,” he said. “You have to respond anew to the other person and the conductor and the production. And every time it’s a slightly different mix, and that changes your performance. You have to be open to that.”
Indeed, subsequent Houston revivals of of the original Pizzi “Aida” had veered so far afield that the Italian director declined to stage it in Los Angeles in 2000. The current production conducted by Dan Ettinger of Staatsoper aims to restore Pizzi’s original vision.
Choreographer Hickey was brought in to recapture his idea of the triumphal scene’s ballet as an Egyptian version of “The Rite of Spring.” She designed a highly stylized dance for 14 scantily dressed men evoking the battle between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians in flat, angular movements inspired by hieroglyphs.
“There’s a lot of danger to it because they’re dealing with spears,” Hickey says.
“We already lost a dancer who tweaked his thigh. The men hurl each other through space into each other’s arms. It’s one thing to lift a ballerina overhead, and it’s another thing to lift a 170-pound man.”
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, next Thursday and Feb. 2, 10, 16 and 19; 2 p.m. Jan. 30, Feb. 5 and 13
Price: $25 to $190
Contact: (213) 972-8001; losangelesopera.com
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