(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
The myth-making images of “Aïda” are the sort of reason people attend opera: Full-scale stone columns of marching Egyptians, singing in front of pharaohs. Iif there’s something in this art form that will get folks off the couch and into the Long Center for the Austin Opera, this is it.
And yet for all of the pomp that dominated “Aïda” productions in the past (including an ark’s-worth of animals on stage), the opera itself is slight. It could be Eygpt, it could be Ireland. What matters are the interpersonal dynamics of a small group.
We meet Aïda and her amore, Radamés, outside the golden walls, adorned with hieroglyphics and images of ancient Egyptian figures. They’re giddily in love, although Radamés, the warrior, is also the preferred catch of the Pharaoh’s daughter. When war breaks out with Aïda’s homeland, Ethiopia, the ground underneath the couple begins to shift.
The production, from Brazil, is stately and impressive, despite lacking the feeling of a cavernous three dimensions that the grandest have; competing with action movies.
The massive pharaoh head, which dominates the stage, is satisfyingly monumental, and the lighting design (by Michael Baumgarten), uses the curvature of the Pharaoh’s headdress to speak volumes, especially when it has just a hint of green, lighting the ribbed pattern, leaving the rest of the bust in darkness. This suits Verdi’s score admirably.
And that score — a myriad of colors, modern sounding textures and ominous tones and percussion beats.
If there’s one thing that continues to make Verdi relatable for a modern audience, it’s that the action on stage isn’t overwrought with absurd plot twists that modern audiences can see coming from a highway mile. Still, the opera is loaded with diversions that our just-give-me-the-info culture, may struggle with.
Luckily, conductor Richard Buckley keeps the energy and intensity up. When the huge assembly of the chorus began to flag behind the beat early on, the baton pushed on, uninterested in falling behind.
There’s also dancing, an attempt to tantalize Verdi’s original Italian audience of the 1800s with strange exotics. (If you tend to watch opera with a critical eye, the word that comes to mind here is “Orientalism.” A web search of “Aïda Orientalism” is worth hours of enjoyment, as the theorist who coined the phrase, Edward Said, dedicated an essay to dissecting the unspoken cultural meaning behind “Aïda.”)
Exotic or not, the dancing captors scene is excellent. It’s essentially a micro ballet between Egyptians and Ethiopians, a mixture of emotions that reach an intense climax.
The principal voices are effective and moving. Karen Slack as Aïda soars at high volume and loses some intensity in softer moments, but her subtle performance is outstanding. She carries herself in a way that feels always considered, never canned or forced.
Issachah Savage, as Radamés, is a rather cheery warrior, but his voice propels through the hall. Finnish mezzo Tuija Knihtilä, in her U.S. debut, as Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter, is a touch more robotic in her acting, but has the most technically accomplished voice on stage.
With all the simulacra of ancient Egypt here, it’s perhaps worth noting that in Austin Opera’s production, both Savage and Slack are African-American. Historians of this tangled web will note that Aïda was often played by a white woman in blackface.
Race and history aside,“Aïda’s” accomplishment may be to render the awkward love triangle in a way that allows us to empathize with each of the primary characters, on their own terms. Austin Opera here makes a very warm recreation.
Austin Opera’s “Aïda” continues Nov. 12 and 15. www.austinopera.org