AIDA, GIUSEPPE VERDI'S 1871 behemoth of an opera, exists as something between soap and high drama, kitsch and Masterpiece Theatre. One possible explanation for this precarious status is the opera's intriguing historical résumé. Commissioned by the khedive of Egypt for the dedication of Cairo's new opera house, Aida was one of the most expensive operas ever made (Verdi's fee was the then-titanic sum of 150,000 francs).
With a creation process complicated by catastrophic world events, Aida stands as one of the opera world's more pacifistic stories. As Verdi was composing Aida in 1870, the Franco-Prussian war erupted, leading to the famous siege of Paris and Germany's bloody victory. While the production's Cairo premiere rapidly approached, Auguste Mariette, one of Verdi's collaborators, was trapped in Paris during the siege along with the opera's sets and costumes. The siege was finally lifted in January of 1871 and Verdi, sympathetic to the French and fearing Germany's occupation of Italy, donated part of his hefty fee to wounded French soldiers.
There may be little wonder, then, that Aida's plot revolves tightly around war and national rivalry. In the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, at an unspecified time in the B.C. era, the Pharaoh has declared war on Ethiopia. But the Ethiopians have struck first and Ramfis, the high priest of the goddess Isis, must name the man who will lead the Egyptian army against the invader. Radames, a brave, fortune-seeking young officer who has also caught the eye of the Pharaoh's daughter Amneris, would lobby the gods for the task. A slight obstacle on his route to fame and eternal sex appeal, however, is his love for an Ethiopian slave girl, Aida--a servant to the powerful and passionate Amneris. Aida too has her share of baggage; though she's in love with Radames, as the daughter of Amonasro, king of Ethiopia, she must choose between patriotism and il gran amore. Various wrathful gods will have their say in the final outcome, and, as is the case with Romantic operas, tragedy ensues.
The Minnesota Opera's production of Aida, co-produced with 11 other North American companies, opens gloriously. As the Prelude, one of the loveliest sections of the score, begins softly with a lone violin, a languorous pool of golden light illuminates the stage. The lights gradually warm, revealing the set's colossal centerpiece: a massive, gold-colored statue of a falcon with wings outstretched. With a span of nearly 40 feet and a robust, vaguely abstract form, this representation of the Egyptian god Horus (created by Englishman Gerard Howland) dominates the environment while rendering itself nearly imperceptible by virtue of its versatility: It's a temple, a palace, a tomb, a wooded grove on the banks of the Nile.
Under Colin Graham's direction and with Richard Butler's lively conducting, the production paces itself evenly, tempering the pomp and pageantry of the first two acts with the intimate glow of Acts 3 and 4. The trio of leads, however, is more uneven. Tenor Craig Sirianni (alternating with Neil Wilson) is a convincingly love-torn Radames. Though his acting is a tad rigid, he manages to compensate with a clear, strong voice; he's particularly effective in "Celeste Aida," the trademark aria from Act 1. In the role of Aida, soprano Priscilla Baskerville (alternating with Geraldine McMillian) starts off shakily with a vibrato that sometimes blurs her intonation. In Acts 1 and 2, in particular, her singing has a shrill edge in the high register and her acting seems overwrought. Yet in Act 3, as the scale of the opera shifts dramatically, Baskerville's tension dissipates. She sings so expressively and with such comfortable emotional resonance ("O patria mia" in Act 3 is a standout) that one wonders if she's merely taken some time to warm up.
Meanwhile, mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti (alternating with Nancy Maultsby) lends credibility in the emotionally complex role of the princess Amneris. She juggles her fury toward Aida and her love of Radames by carefully sidestepping the narrow interpretation of a rich girl with an appetite. Amneris swells with redemption sooner than expected, and as she sings "Peace, I implore you" (in an eerily beautiful pianissimo) above the lovers' tomb, the closing seconds of the opera belong to her alone.
Aida runs through Sunday at the Ordway Theatre in St. Paul; call 224-4222.