'Aida' wins battle of relocation with style


Afew blocks from the White House, the head of state exhorted a large crowd to war against a relentless foe that threatens to spread death on a vast scale.

Members of the leader's inner circle were there, too, telling everyone in attendance: "Let the only response be a united one." A high-ranking official warned that the enemy must not be appeased, for "they will only take up arms again."

No, this had nothing to do with Iraq and the Bush administration, although Laura Bush happened to be there Monday night at Constitution Hall. All this war talk - and a lot of love talk - was just part of Aida, Verdi's vivid tale of ancient Egypt in the Washington Opera's vocally and visually potent new staging. (The visit by the first lady, who departed before the last act, meant that the audience had to snake slowly through metal detectors before gaining admission, delaying the performance by 20 minutes.)

This production marks the beginning of the company's temporary exile while the Kennedy Center Opera House undergoes renovation. An expensive, imaginative reconfiguring of good old, boxy Constitution Hall puts the orchestra behind a stage that now projects out into some of the original ground-level seating. TV monitors allow singers and conductor to maintain eye contact.

Judging by remarks overheard during intermissions, the new venue may not delight every patron, especially those sitting on the sloping sides closest to the stage, or even those on the pricey area right in front. Sight lines and acoustics cannot help but vary widely.

Viewed from a short way up the seats that rise from the rear center of the hall, the experience proved quite satisfactory. That vantage point was particularly helpful in taking in all of the artfully arranged imagery - from the hieroglyphic to the pictorial - projected onto a series of gauzy curtains and panels that are constantly furled and unfurled as the action progresses.

The sophisticated slide show helps to disguise the fact that there really aren't any conventional sets to speak of, nor any hordes of extras to provide a truly triumphant Triumphal March in Act 2 (instead, drawings of soldiers whirl all over those curtains).

There's a lot of Egyptian kitsch in the mix and a few too many instant responses to text (when a character mentions "waves of blood," you know lots of red pictures are coming), but this theatrical concept from a team led by director Paolo Micciche certainly keeps the eye engaged. And some of the effects are very striking, as when, at the end of the trial scene, a rush of visuals suggests the sudden shutting of a tomb.

As for the U.S. debut of Luminex costumes, made of a new fiber-optic textile, it proved intriguing, if not overwhelming. Dancers in one of the ballet sequences glowed prettily, but with a touch of Las Vegas. Subtler uses of the fabric were applied to the principal singers. On Monday, Maria Guleghina, in the title role, had trouble with pitch and tonal support, but mustered her resources for a compelling last act. I just wish she hadn't resorted to the open arms, kneeling position so often. Franco Farina, as Radames, started gruffly, but soon poured out a virile tone and, in that last act, some ravishing, poignant lines. He and Guleghina shaped their final duet in extra-elongated phrases.

Still, Marianne Cornetti (Amneris) and Mark Delavan (Amonasro) stole the show with their firm, richly layered voices and vivid styling. This was Verdi singing at an exalted level; it electrified the hall.

A generally strong supporting cast, chorus and orchestra added to the assets. Conductor Heinz Fricke could not always keep everyone together, but never lost control of the opera's inner pulse as he fashioned a sensitive, knowing performance.


What: Aida

When: 7:30 tonight, 2 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. March 3 and March 8, 7:30 p.m. March 11

Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington

Tickets: $41 to $285

Call: 202-295-2400

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