Operatic High Note

Arizona Opera Offers Aida This weekend.

By Margaret Regan

BACK IN 1869, when the Suez Canal was about to open, the ruler of Egypt invited Giuseppe Verdi to compose a work heralding the new mechanical marvel.

Verdi was uninspired by the idea of immortalizing the unprecedented sea link between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Suez, but he proposed an alternative: an opera set in the glory days of ancient Egypt. Aida didn't get finished in time to greet the first boats--Rigoletto was a hasty substitute--but Aida nevertheless had its debut in the Cairo Opera House, in 1871.

Review Arizona Opera puts on its own Aida this weekend, and though the TCC Music Hall may not be as exotic as Cairo, the stage will be dressed in the trappings of ancient Egypt.

"It's very imposing, with columns and big statues," says Bernard Uzan, who stage directs. Uzan, the general and artistic director of the Opera de Montreal for the last 11 years, also co-designed the set, which was previously used in a Montreal production.

The elaborate sets and costumes are very much to the point, says the French-born Uzan. At a time when theatre often gets stripped down to bare psychological bones, opera has stepped into the void.

"Opera is what theatre is supposed to be: a mix of music, dance, acting, sets, costumes, everything," says the erudite Uzan, who holds doctorates in literature, theatrical studies and philosophy from the University of Paris. "It's what surrealists like Antonin Artaud envisioned for theatre at the beginning of the century. But straight theatre has arrived against the wall. Playwrights like Samuel Beckett have killed a certain form of theatre. Waiting for Godot is a play about nothing."

Classic opera, by contrast, is about everything. The melodious Aida, a grand 19th-century work if ever there was one, is a case in point. The title character is a passionate Ethiopian slave girl, sung alternately by sopranos Priscilla Baskerville, who performed the same role at new York's Metropolitan Opera, and Leslie Morgan, who played in Arizona Opera's recent Tosca. Naturally, Aida is in love, with the powerful Egyptian general Radames, sung by tenors Peter Riberi, another Met vet, and Tonio di Paolo. Aida's equally enamored mistress, Pharaoh's daughter, Amneris (Sandra Graham and Anne-Marie Owens), threatens vengeance in the solo "Chi ti salva, sciagurato." There's even a filial subplot about Aida's father, Amonasro, a baritone part sung by Theodore Lambrinos and Allan Monk.

The opera is well-known for its pageantry--including the triumphal march "Gloria all'Egito," at the beginning of Act II--and this production showcases the dancers of Ballet Arizona, along with the musicians of the Phoenix Symphony, conducted by musical director Willie Anthony Waters. Yet the love story requires the characters to "talk about their inside feelings," Uzan said. "It's pretty difficult to show, but if you have singers with soul, it is not a problem.

"The music is extraordinary, and opera is about music first. And when it's done the way we do it, with sets presenting ancient Egypt, it's visually beautiful. This opera is perfect for the general public. In fact, it's one of the operas you should start with."

Arizona Opera presents Verdi's Aida, sung in Italian with English surtitles, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 15 and 16, and 2 p.m. Sunday, January 17. Kenneth Ryan gives pre-performance lectures one hour before the show, free to ticket holders. Tickets range from $17 to $67. They're available at the Arizona Opera (293-4336) or the TCC box office (791-4836). TW

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