Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Äida: Nashville Opera @ Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville

12-14 October 2006

Verdi’s Äida is as known for the spectacle of Act II’s triumphant parade scene as it is for its story or music. The Nashville Opera’s production didn’t stint on spectacle with dancers from the Nashville Ballet, animals from the Nashville Zoo (the caracal, a type of African wild cat, actually necessitated a meat sponsorship by a local grocery), lavish costumes, and a literally monumental set. But it never forgot that, at its heart, Äida is a story about three people in love.

Radames is an ancient Egyptian soldier who is loved by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris. He, in turn, is in love with Äida, Amneris’ slave. Aida is also the Princess of Ethiopia, the county that Radames is fighting. He hopes to win the war and gain enough power and influence to free her, but that means defeating her homeland and her people, including her father, King Amonasro. Äida loves Radames but feels a sense of duty to Amonasro, who wants her to use her situation to get information from Radames. Ramades has his own conflict over duty: as much as he esteems Äida, he holds his duty and honour even higher.

In addition to forbidden love and jealousy, the opera addresses themes of conflicting loyalties, power versus powerlessness, and personal desire versus public responsibility. The characters are racked by powerful internal struggles and they care intensely. Not all good singers are actor enough to convey this, but in this production, the three principals and, notably, baritone Todd Thomas as Amonasro, definitely were.

The duet sung by soprano Michèle Crider as Äida and Thomas as her father, Amonasro, in Act III was a highlight. In trying to convince Äida to spy for him, he applies one of the most intense guilt trips ever, including accusations of causing her homelands downfall if she doesn’t cooperate and the invocation of the besieging, disappointed ghost of her mother.

Crider, in her signature role as Äida, channelled a wide range of emotions through her voice, including anguish and anger. Verdi’s original notes describe ida as meek, but in this version, she is only as meek as she must be to survive as a slave. Crider’s voice exuded an easy power and melodious tone that made listening to her a pleasure.

Michael Hayes as Radames, with his expressive tenor, conveyed beautifully the intense conflicts his character experiences. Mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee was also convincing as Amneris, the third part of the love triangle, but her voice was often overshadowed by Crider and Hayes. As suits a princess, though, she got the most gorgeous costumes.

The Nashville Symphony, conducted by Tyrone Patterson, provided rich, well-paced music. Verdi was musically experienced by the time he wrote Äida and his maturity shows. It is interesting to listen for the influence of Egyptian tone scales and choruses which Verdi researched as he wrote this opera.

Appropriately for its setting, Äida is built like a pyramid – it starts small, builds, peaks in Act II with the triumphal march, and then comes down to the personal level again. The Nashville Operas production was both large-scale and intimate, but a few scenes were perhaps too intimate. These were simply staged with a character singing in front of the drawn curtain. This may have been a decision based on logistics – the necessity of moving massive set pieces – while keeping pauses to a minimum. But while it did focus attention purely on the singer, it also pulled the audience out of the story.

Verdi had very definite ideas about how his operas should be staged and made elaborate staging books detailing exactly how he wanted the action to proceed. Had he been writing a staging book for the Nashville production, he might have included notes about the order of animals in the march – the wild cat should not directly follow the bird for example – a bit of wisdom that Nashville Opera Artist Director, John Hoomes, says he learned during rehearsals. Hoomes says he tried to stay true to Verdi’s wishes for the opera: “I think the hardest thing in directing a Verdi opera is not getting in the way of Verdi.”

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Äida: Nashville Opera @ Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville