Grand Opera on Grand Avenue: The Triumph of the Thrill

The "triumphal scene" from Opera Pacific's production of Aida in 2006, starring Angela Brown as Aida, Donnie Ray Albert as Amonasro, Andrew Gangestad as Ramfis, Carl Tanner as Radames, Milena Kitic as Amneris, and Stefan Szkafarowsky as King of Egypt.; Image credit Mr Snrub; Mr Snrub, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Right from the get go I must gush that in terms of sheer scale – optically and sonically – as staged by LA Opera, Aida’s scene set outside of the city walls wherein the masses are assembled to all hail the conquering heroes is among the most magnificent sequences I’ve ever experienced at a live theater in my entire life. Amidst fluttering banners and brandished weaponry, there are dancing girls, soldiers, priests, citizens, royalty and prisoners of war as the ancient Egyptians celebrate their returning, victorious army, who have just vanquished the Ethiopian invaders (as in ACT II, SCENE 2 of the original libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni – but in LA Opera’s version directed by Francesca Zambello, this colossal triumphal scene takes place at the end of the first act, before the curtain drops to signal intermission).

This is truly grand opera at its grandest, with an onstage spectacle and composer Giuseppe Verdi’s transcendent music which, if it fails to stir you, means you simply don’t have a soul to be stirred (or shaken). Verdi’s fantastic fanfare and cascade of sound melds the best of orchestral, operatic strains with the rousing tempo of marching and martial music. During this triumphal scene, which includes the throng singing (translated from the Italian), “Glory to Egypt and to Isis,” Radames (florid Floridian tenor Russell Thomas, an LA Opera Artist in Residence since 2020), the commander who has led the Egyptian victors and is being feted by the exuberant crowd and members of the power elite, is granted one wish by the King/Pharoah (Chinese bass Peixin Chen). In one of opera’s greatest ironies, Radames’s benevolent plea for mercy for the Ethiopian POWs proves to be his undoing. (Beware what you wish for! Because you just might get it – and then some!)

In a nutshell, Aida projects the struggle of the eternal love triangle onto the realm of realpolitik, as the dramatis personae include the high and mighty, set against the background of war, and the stakes are larger than life. Radames is clandestinely in love with the title character, Aida (Texan soprano Latonia Moore), who is the captured Ethiopian slave of the Egyptian princess Amneris (Tennessee soprano Melody Moore, who previously played the title role in LA Op’s Tosca). Amneris is secretly enamored of Radames and as the saga unfolds, it is galling to Her Royal Highness that despite her airs, wealth and power, Radames prefers (what appears to be) a lowly slave woman over a princess. (None of the Egyptians know that Aida is also actually the daughter of Ethiopia’s King Amonasro, Egypt’s sworn enemy, who is depicted by Tbilisi, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze, who has starred in the title role of LA Op’s Rigoletto.)

Complications ensue, as the love triangle is roiled by royalty, warfare and the necessity of picking sides: Love or your homeland? According to The Victor Book of Operas by Louis Biancolli and Robert Bagar, around the time the Suez Canal was built, Verdi was sent “a four-page sketch… based on an Egyptian subject (allegedly authentic), which the distinguished Egyptologist Mariette Bey, had done.” The purported fact-based account set in ancient times caused the composer’s creative juices to flow.

As directed by Zambello and costumed by Hong Konger Anita Yavich, with sets co-created by Texas scenery designer Michael Yeargan and LA graffiti artist RETNA, this production of Verdi’s Aida, which premiered at Cairo in 1871, seems to this film historian and opera lover to be quoting scenes from a number of films. (That’s not to say Mariette Bey is a Michael Bay.) SCENE 1 of LA Opera’s iteration opens with a set reminiscent of the war room in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 Cold War comedy Dr. Strangelove (according to The Victor Book of Operas, this is originally supposed to be: “A Hall in the Palace (through the gate at the rear may be seen the pyramids and temples of Memphis [Egypt – not Tennessee].)”

The high-ranking Egyptian ministers and military men, plus high priest Ramfis (Atlanta, Georgian bass Morris Robinson, an LA Op regular who, tellingly, portrayed the Grand Inquisitor in 2018’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlos) are gathered in this war room, strategizing to defeat the invading Ethiopian army. (I don’t believe Ethiopia is ever specifically mentioned by name in the LA Opera version, but according to The Victor Book of Operas that is where the enemy army is from. Ghislanzoni’s lyrics suggest that Aida hails from sub-Saharan Africa.)

Interestingly, all of the Egyptian brass in the war room are in modern dress, wearing contemporary uniforms. The King or Pharoah appoints Radames to lead the army, who has supposedly been anointed by the goddess Isis. Resplendent in his bombastic militaristic outfit, Thomas as Radames reminded me of Paul Robeson as the title character in the 1933 film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s drama set in a Black-ruled Caribbean Island, The Emperor Jones.

Throughout this production of Aida the cast is garbed in a combination of modern dress and nonspecific period costume (that does not seem authentic to the time and place). Why would the talents behind this production add contemporary elements to an 1871 show set in ancient Egypt? When I was a little boy, I saw Aida performed under the stars at the Roman Forum, with live camels, donkeys and elephants onstage, which accentuated the authenticity sensibility of this production produced amidst the ruins of the Roman empire, which enhanced the opera’s verisimilitude.

I think the modern dress element has been inserted now to make 2022 audiences reflect on what Aida may say for our own times. The combination of mass spectacle, with totalitarian totems, the fetishization and veneration of militaristic leaders, dominance of the church (personified by high priest Ramfis, who is extremely vengeful, vindictive and cruel) over the state with a fanatical, cultish ideology, all seem visually and philosophically redolent of authoritarianism. The triumphal scene referred to in my lead paragraph (plus some others) seem inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 pseudo-documentary Triumph of the Will, with the pomp, pageantry and protocols of 1934’s carefully staged and choreographed Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, amidst fluttering banners and weaponry.

It's important to make it clear that I am not at all suspecting or suggesting that the talents behind LA Opera’s production of Aida (the first one at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion since 2005) are fascist sympathizers, but rather that they are using aspects of Aida to warn us about and against the threat of totalitarianism, that seems to be on the rise in parts of the world, including right here at home in MAGA country. The use of modern dress uniforms may be a tip off, just as Orson Welles’ Broadway adaptation of Julius Caesar in 1937 was a clear reference to Mussolini.

At times, it seems like a proverbial cast of thousands tread the boards during sequences of Aida, but in actuality, according to LA Opera’s Director of Communications, at the peak of the mise-en-scene, there are 94 performers onstage. RETNA’s imagery seems to combine a graffiti aesthetic with hieroglyphic-like symbology, such as ersatz ancient Egyptian ankhs. The brilliant, striking illuminations by lighting designer Mark McCullough deserve a special shout out. Jessica Lang’s choreography is also especially noteworthy; there is more dancing in this production than I can remember at any other LA Opera show, much of it balletic.

Zambello’s direction of crowd scenes is deft, while her principal characters often turn in sensitive performances while delivering sonorous arias. The grand finale cleverly visualizes the fatal love triangle by using the cinematic device of a split screen (but live, not on celluloid or video). In SCENE 2 of the second act, the characters’ deaths seem to take longer than most people’s lifetimes, but that’s a mere quibble.

Just as Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 Il Trovatore opened LA Opera’s 2021/22 Season, Verdi’s Aida is the last fully staged opera of this season. Having made a tremendous comeback after being sidelined by the you-know-what, LA Opera is going out with a bang with this stellar, stirring, rapturous tale of love, envy, patriotism, war, mixed motives – and perhaps a cautionary note about the incipient fascism lurking out there.

Aida is being presented Saturday, June 4, 2022, at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, June 9, 2022, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, June 12, 2022, at 2:00 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. For tickets: ; (213)972-8001.

Free Live Simulcast on June 4
The June 4 performance of Aida will be transmitted in high-definition live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to audiences in three locations: at Santa Clarita’s Newhall Park, Fairplex in Pomona, and the Santa Monica Pier.