Review: Aida at Lyric Opera Is an Entertaining and Opulent Extravaganza of Verdi’s Finest Work

Guiseppe Verdi's Aida is perhaps one of his best-known operas and of all Italian operas. It has the treachery, aching love, and tragedy that befalls the great heroines of this art form. The Lyric has not staged Aida in over a decade. This version is more robust under the direction of Francesca Zambello. The dazzling art design from Marquise Lewis aka RETNA made this staging more exotic and relatable to the ruling class of ancient Egypt. As always, Enrique Mazzola was masterful in conducting the Lyric Orchestra. His command of the orchestra and conducting style are animated and dramatic. He feels every note and phrase and conveys that to the orchestra. It is heard in their performance.

Michelle Bradley tackles the role of Aida, the enslaved Ethiopian princess, who loves a commander of the Egyptian army, Radamès played by Russell Thomas. Bradley starts strong and is a fine actor with a glorious stage presence. Near the end of Act Two, some of the high notes became more of a stage whisper and even a touch flat. Her voice showed strain but she overcame that in Act Three. Thomas is a charismatic performer who is well-matched as Radamès, Aida's forbidden and true love. He is riveting as the soldier who longs to be in command to bring honor to his country and his king. He has great chemistry with Bradley and his body dynamics are excellent. One of the reasons that operatic singing can be so challenging is that there is acting and stage choreography for the character being portrayed.

Jamie Barton and Michelle Bradley. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

I loved Jamie Barton as the jealous and willful Princess Amneris. She plays a great villain with an arrogant manner and dismissive wave. Barton started soft and was nearly drowned out by the orchestra and the powerhouse soprano of Bradley. However, she made her voice reach the rafters and is virtuosic in the final act begging the High Priest Ramfis (sung by bass Önay Köse) for mercy and leniency. Köse has an ominous stage presence complemented by his fine bass voice in his Lyric debut. Ramfis and the other priests are costumed in outfits reminiscent of the Pharisees in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973).

Anita Yavich made her Lyric debut as the costume designer for Aida. Her designs are flowing and colorful. The tunics worn by Princess Amneris and her ladies-in-waiting are richly patterned with a tasteful amount of sequins. The soldier uniforms seemed out of place during ancient times when people worshiped Isis and Osiris. You think of it as more togas and bay laurel crowns than khaki and jackboots.

Jamie Barton and Önay Köse with Aida ensemble. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The fabulous baritone Reginald Smith Jr. returns to the Lyric as Amonasro, a king in chains. Smith was a standout in Champion as the conflicted older Emile Griffith. His Amonasro is fierce and defiant. The scene with him and Bradley was heart-wrenching with a conflicted Aida not wanting to betray her love and a dutiful daughter to her king who has been enslaved.

The production values in Aida are magnificent. Mark McCulloch's lighting design gives RETNA's elaborate hieroglyphic-inspired art more dimension. The lighting for the performers is also great. Aida has a multicultural cast and that cannot be easy to light. Speaking of a fine balance, chorus director Michael Black led a huge chorus for this production. They were in perfect sync with the lead singers. Verdi layered several melodies with the Egyptians, Ethiopians, and soldiers singing to celebrate Radamès' victory and the gift of Amneris' hand in marriage. There was magic in making it cohesive with a full sound.

Michelle Bradley with Aida ensemble. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

I have a beef with the choreography for this production. The dancers were in fine form but the movement felt out of sync with the period and the music. The soldiers in khaki with the rigid hand and arm movements felt more il Duce than the love story. It was a weird vibe as was the pirouetting amid the celebration. A more modern approach would have been less jarring in my opinion. Or better yet, leave the soldiers to revelry and background kinsmanship. Despite that minor detail, I highly recommend Aida as a production to see.

The Lyric Opera production of Aida plays through April 7, at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive. For showtimes and tickets please visit www.lyricopera.org.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.