On May 20, 2018, Regina Opera Company concluded its first run of Giuseppe Verdi’s timeless “Aida.” While it is a work that is by no means underperformed around the world, this production comes as a loving tribute to the late Marie Cantoni, who founded the company back in 1970 with Nicholas Tierno. The experience the company has gained since then made for a strong foundation with which to bring “Aida” to life on the stage of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Academy.
As the Egyptian army commander Radames, Jose Heredia’s first aria, “Celeste Aida,” opened the opera with a captivating hook thanks to his tremendous spinto voice, further bolstered by the fanfare coming from the horns. Though I was expecting this quality to be the one on display for the entire aria, Heredia ended the phrase “un trono vicino al sol” with a chillingly-delicate B Flat morendo, drawing great applause and cries of “bravo!” only halfway through its delivery. Heredia’s interpretation favored Radames as a man martyred in the name of love more than the heroic commander of Egypt’s armies. While more than capable of fighting off the warrior king Amonasro, it was Radames’ interactions with Aida where his performance became simply magnetic, in particular in the Act 3 duet “Pur ti riveggo.” Here Heredia and Carami Hilaire exchanged jubilant high notes as they envisioned what life could be like together.
In the role of Aida, Carami Hilaire brought an electric vibrancy to her portrayal of the tragic Ethiopian princess. The cries of her unshakable fear rang clear over the chorus in “Alta cagion v’aduna… Guerra, guerra, guerra!” When all but her departed and she sang “Ritorna vincitor,” Hilaire gracefully navigated the vocal leaps that characterized the conflicting states of fear and love. At the end of her Act 2 duet ‘Fu la sorte dell’armi,” Hilaire, after suffering the emotional abuse hurled by Amneris, exits from the stage holding on to the pained C on the second syllable of “pieta” in a way that elicited just that. In Act 3, that vocal grace made a massive return with the aria “O patria mia.” Hilaire’s sonorous phrasing floated over the tumult of the strings, but it was the moments where her voice soared that earned the applause which nearly brought the show to a stop.
Finishing the love triangle was Lara Tillotson as Princess Amneris, who proved herself as being no less enchanting than her romantic rival Aida. While vocally, Tillotson took a backseat to Heredia and Hilaire during the trio “Vieni, o diletta, appressati,” she came into her own as her character began to assert more power in tormenting Aida with the fear of Radames’ death in battle. Tillotson’s portrayal was not that of a spoiled and possessive princess, shallow and loathsome, but of an Amneris who was very much in love with Radames as well. Her vocal entrances after learning of her betrothal to Radames during the Act 2 finale were, to quote the commander about the news, “an unexpected thunderbolt.” All of this fervor melted away in Act 4, after she fails to persuade Radames to deny the charges of treason. The trial begins offstage after a dejected and heartbroken wave of Tillotson’s hand, and after the verdict of death is delivered, Tillotson places all her remaining hopes in the hands of the gods, becoming a deeply sympathetic figure as she delivers serene, almost-hymnal pleas for her lover’s safety.
As Amonasro, Peter Hakjoon Kim’s stentorian bass captured the Ethiopian king’s authority even while in chains. When it came to the well-being of his people, however, Kim’s voice pivoted to more tenderness. This quality was later replaced by thunder during his duet with Aida in Act 3 which laid down the law in a way only fathers can. Though the love duet which follows right after between Aida and Radames does hold one’s attention, Kim leaned back into sight from his hiding place behind a stone slab during its climax, as if to remind the audience of his presence and eavesdropping. This direction seemed unneeded and even a bit comical, somewhat undercutting his assassination attempt on Ramfis and Amneris.
On the set design, most prominent were the large, hieroglyphic-covered slabs of stone which slid open and shut to differentiate the indoor and outdoor scenes. This usage remained consistent until the final scene with Radames and Aida being sealed in the vault together, where the doors slid open to give a view of the supplicated Amneris and her guards, forming a touching tableau with the doomed, embracing lovers. When the doors were slid open, a large Eye of Horus occupied a central place in the backdrop. While the opera has plenty of invocations and pleas to Isis, Ptah, and other unspecified gods, the Eye of Horus at times felt merely obligatory. The lighting was simple but well-utilized: an ominous red like the radiance of a blood moon concluded the first act before the Egyptians go off to war, and a deep blue covering served to evoke the waters of the Nile River, accented by a faint iridescence to add a touch of dreaminess. Less appealing were the sacred arms and banner of Egypt, the former being a rather dull falchion, and the latter was a blue flag also carrying the Eye of Horus, looking like a smaller version of the backdrop/sky.
Locations such as the palace court, Amneris’ garden, and the temple interior were given an interesting treatment thanks to choreographer and dancer duo Wendy Chu and Kelly Vaghenas. The pair served as dancers accompanying either Ramfis or the gossamer-clad dancer, played by Kirsten Reynolds. When it came time to bestow the sacred arms and banner upon Radames, the assembled priesthood entered bearing a faux-flaming altar before a dance ensued. Reynolds, a silent but striking presence, concluded her dance by lowering into a bridge position and becoming much like an altar herself, whereby Ramfis drew the sword to present to Radames. Following the battle where the Ethiopians are taken prisoner, there’s a brief fight between an Egyptian warrior and an Ethiopian slave for the assembled court to relish. What made the stage combat enjoyable was the blend between elements of dance and martial arts working together in a way which suited the rapid march rhythm in this part of Verdi’s score. Though there was the standard punch here and there, the choreography employed moves from Brazilian Capoeira, such as handless cartwheels and whirling kicks; while anachronistic, the style made for a highly-interesting connection to the story due to it being developed by slaves to rise against their masters, going so far as to disguise it as a dance.
The performance on May 20 was the last of Regina Opera’s initial run of “Aida,” and I believe the company has gained a wonderful addition to their repertoire in the form of Verdi’s work. Musically, Regina Opera’s experience made itself evident under conductor Gregory Ortega; on the inventive side of things was the choreography by Chu and Vaghenas; somewhere between experience and invention was the mostly-positive mixed bag of set design, props, and costumes. In all, Regina Opera’s production of “Aida” shows that even after 48 years, a company can still learn and grow, taking risks that are well-worth the reward.