‘Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt’ – Mark Twain

Dayton Opera presents grandiose Aida

By Eric Street

photo: Jon Silla; jonsilla.com

Love among the pyramids! Heartbreak by the Nile! And it’s all set against the monumental splendors of sun-washed ancient Egypt, presented to you by the formidable combined forces of the Dayton Opera, Dayton Ballet and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. This season’s final Dayton Performing Arts Alliance Signature Event is the grandest of all Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, his spectacular Aida, which will run Friday, May 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 4, at 3 p.m. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center.

While it’s easy to swoon over Aida’s stunning spectacle, with its unforgettable Egyptian setting, splendid exotic ballet and swaggering Triumphal March, what propels the story against its sweeping backdrop is actually an intensely intimate drama of love doomed by implacable outside forces. The powerful love triangle at the heart of the drama would move us in any setting, but propelled and given voice by Verdi’s grand and passionate music, it is irresistible. It is no small wonder Aida is the second most-performed opera in the history of the Metropolitan Opera and among the 12 most-performed worldwide.

The current production of Aida is completely different from the one that opened the Schuster Center over a decade ago – with new sets, costumes, stage direction, choreography and singers. This new mounting features eight exciting singing actors; Neal Gittleman conducting the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra; dancers from the Dayton Ballet, choreographed by Artistic Director Karen Russo Burke and monumental scenery and costumes to bring the majesty of ancient Egypt to the stage of the Schuster Center. A Dayton Opera favorite, stage director Kathleen Clawson, returns for her fifth appearance with Dayton Opera for this operatic masterpiece.

Clawson’s enthusiasm about Aida is unambiguous. “I do a lot of teaching about opera to students of all ages, and I define opera as a story told with music and spectacle,” Clawson said. “It’s got a gripping story, fantastic music and it’s all wrapped in an amazing spectacle. What’s not to love? At the heart of Aida is a love story. It’s a love triangle – two women love the same man. That never ends well!

“For me as a director, that’s part of the problem,” Clawson continued. “This very small, intimate love story is encased in a richly extravagant setting. What to know before you go? It’s got great music – great orchestral music, great choral music, great solo music. Five minutes in, there’s one of the greatest tenor arias ever. Then comes the Triumphal March, the ballet. There’s something for everyone. It’s a jam-packed evening of wonderful entertainment!

“The production is visually stunning – gorgeous sets and costumes. They’ve assembled a fantastic cast, and I’m really looking forward to being back with Dayton Opera!”

The cast assembled by Artistic Director Thomas Bankston represents some of our country’s best singing and acting talent. The exotically beautiful soprano Indira Mahajan is a Marian Anderson Award-winner in worldwide demand by opera companies, orchestras and recital presenters. Praised for her “strongly centered, richly textured soprano” by New York Magazine and her “poignant soprano” by The New York Times, she will grace the stage of the Mead Theatre in her first outing as the tragic Aida. This will be Indira’s fifth appearance with Dayton Opera, after singing Nedda in Pagliacci, Mimi in La Bohème, Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly and most recently starring as a soloist in Dayton Opera’s 50th Star Gala in 2011.

Debuting as the passionately jealous Amneris, lovely Greek-American mezzo-soprano Layna Chianakas has been hailed as “the type of singer that makes one remember why to go to the opera.” The Boston Globe praised Chianakas as “an audience favorite, singing with a strong, cutting voice and breathing real pathos” into her characters. This marks Chianakas’ sixth time performing with Dayton Opera, with leads in Rigoletto in 2004, Madame Butterfly in 2006, Don Giovanni in 2007, and solos in both Dayton Opera’s 50th Star Gala in 2011 and the Season Opening Spectacular in 2013.

Baritone Grant Youngblood sings the role of Aida’s father, the wily and energetic Ethiopian King Amonasro. Hailed as a tall, dashing baritone “with a robust sound with ringing top notes,” Youngblood’s many orchestral appearances have garnered enthusiastic praise for his “smooth lyric baritone voice bringing beautiful shading and color to the score.” Youngblood has previously sung with the Dayton Opera as Figaro in The Barber of Seville in 2001, and as Scarpia in the 2005 production of Tosca.

Bass Harold Wilson makes his Dayton Opera debut as the ominous Ramfis, High Priest of Egypt. Of his performance with the Tulsa Opera, The Tulsa World said, “Harold Wilson’s resonant bass made for a magisterial high priest Ramfis.”

Kenneth Shaw, bass, sings the King of Egypt. Shaw is a professor of voice at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music and a frequent performer with Dayton Opera, as well as companies throughout the U.S. He appears for his 14th time on stage with the Dayton Opera since 2001. This will be his second time singing the King of Egypt for Dayton Opera’s Aida, having performed it over a decade ago to help inaugurate the Schuster stage.

Dayton Opera’s Artist-in-Residence Tenor Logan Rucker will sing the role of Messenger, having most recently sung for Dayton Opera the roles of Sandman and Dew Fairy in Hansel & Gretel and Spoletta in Tosca. Soprano and UD voice faculty member Andrea Chenoweth makes her Dayton Opera debut in the role of the High Priestess. Berkshire on Stage has praised her as having “a clear, pure voice that seems to flow easily from one end of the coloratura’s range to the other.”

“It’s exciting, even if I don’t appear onstage,” laughed Chenoweth when speaking of her upcoming role. “Everything the High Priestess does is in the ceremonial cave, so my actions are shrouded in mystery!”

In addition to its roster of soloists, Aida even entices individuals from the community to the Mead stage to join in the sumptuous pageantry. Under chorus master Jeffrey Powell, a large assembly of the Dayton Opera Chorus will be augmented by members of the Dayton Philharmonic Chorus. Dayton Opera’s regular supernumerary corps will be expanded by members of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Airmen’s Benevolent Society to portray Egyptian soldiers and other colorful characters who will fill the stage for the magnificent Triumphal Scene. Even animals have been recruited to join in the fun!


Aida’s beginnings

Aida’s beginnings are nearly as exotic as its setting. The Khedive commissioned Verdi to write an opera to celebrate the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo and paid him the not-inconsiderable sum of 150,000 francs. However, the Franco-Prussian War’s 1870-71 Siege of Paris left both scenery and costumes stranded in the French capitol, and Verdi’s Rigoletto was performed instead. Aida eventually premiered in Cairo on Dec. 24, 1871. Contrary to popular belief, the opera was not written to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, for which Verdi was invited to write an inaugural hymn, but declined.

Aida was met with thunderous acclaim when it finally opened in Cairo with its long delayed costumes and sets. Although Verdi did not attend the premiere in Cairo, he was disgruntled the audience consisted of invited dignitaries, politicians and critics, but no members of the general public. He therefore considered the Italian premiere, in which he was heavily involved at every stage, to be its real premiere. That took place at La Scala, Milan on Feb. 8, 1872.


Vocal highlights

Aida is eminently enjoyable on many levels, but certainly the most important is as a glorious vehicle for the human voice, whether solo, duet, trio, ensemble or chorus. After a brief, but evocative, Prelude which introduces the themes of Aida’s yearning love and the darker, descending motive of the priests, Verdi quickly produces the most beloved tenor aria of the opera, “Heavenly Aida,” which is sung by Radamès as he dreams of Aida, an Ethiopian slave whom he secretly loves.

Aida soon appears and, when Radamès sees her, Amneris notices his discomfort. She suspects her slave Aida as her rival for his affections, but hides her jealousy and approaches Aida in the manipulative phrases of “Vieni, o diletta, appressati” (“Come, O delight, come closer”).

When Radamès is chosen to lead the Egyptian armies against Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, Aida is torn between love for her father, her country and Radamès. She vents her anguish in the great “Ritorna vincitor” (“Return a conqueror”).

One of the grandest choral outpourings of the entire operatic literature comes in the second act, when Radamès indeed returns a conqueror with many of the captured Ethiopians. The chorus responds with the stirring “Gloria all’Egitto, ad Iside” (“Glory to Egypt, to Isis!”).

The act sweeps to a hair-raising close as the assembled cast and chorus join in the triumphal “O Re: pei sacri Numi! … Gloria all’Egitto” (“O King, by the sacred gods … Glory to Egypt”).

The third act finds Aida waiting outside the Temple of Isis to meet with Radamès as she sings the sorrowful and perilously demanding “O patria mia” (“Oh, my dear country!”).

Her father Amonasro appears and by playing on her longing for her homeland persuades Aida to ferret the location of the Egyptian army from Radamès in an impassioned “Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate” (“Once again shalt thou gaze”).

In the gripping judgment scene that opens the last act, Amneris curses the priests who have condemned Radamès for treason as he is taken away to be buried alive in the dramatic “Ahimè! … morir mi sento” (“Alas … I feel death”).

In the final scene, Aida has hidden herself in the vault in order to die with Radamès. Together they say goodbye to Earth in a longing “O terra, addio” (“Oh Earth, farewell …”) as Amneris weeps above and prays to Isis for peace.


How to go

Want to learn more about Aida? Come one hour prior to both performances to hear pre-performance talks presented by UD music professor Sam Dorf. “Opera bites” are also available in the Wintergarden before the performance and at the first intermission. The opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles above the stage.


The Dayton Opera presents Aida Friday, May 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 4, at 3 p.m. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. For tickets, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org. Senior, teacher and student discounts are available at box office.

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Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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