Opera Carolina's 'Aida' is a worthy spectacle

There’s nothing wrong with making a spectacle of yourself, especially if the spectacle involves “Aida,” the opener for the 65th season of Opera Carolina.

Who can resist an evening of shiny head dresses, dramatic lighting, sophisticated singing and enough dancing to power a high-school production of “Glee”?

Unlike more traditional productions, this production of “Aida” doesn’t include live animals. Produced in cooperation with the Toledo Opera, which performed it first with the same principal singers, this version skips the dog-and-pony show (or zebra-and-elephant show, if you prefer) for a stage packed with pomp and triumphal circumstance in the big numbers, particularly the priestly chorus (“O Mighty Ptah”) and the processional set piece “Gloria all’Egitto.”

For all of its exoticism and grand themes of patriotism and betrayal in ancient Egypt, the key to the staying power of “Aida” for more than 140 years has been the human story under it all.

At heart, it’s the story of the Ethiopian slave and secret princess Aida, her powerful Egyptian mistress, Princess Amneris, and their shared love for the ambitious soldier Ramades. But the love story is wrapped in complex themes of loyalty, longing, nation and regret.

All of that is told in four acts using some of the most intricate and complicated music that Guiseppe Verdi ever wrote, with voices blending like ribbons of sound. Despite often-repeated tales (including in the program given out at Belk Theater), many biographers do not believe Verdi wrote the opera to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi refused to write a small piece for that event, and instead agreed to write a larger opera with an Egyptian theme. The debut was delayed by real military conflict, the Franco-Prussian War, and finally opened in Cairo in 1871, followed by the European premiere in Milan in 1872.

At the time it was written, the “mysterious East” was the subject of fashionable fascination in Europe. Opera at its best is spectacle and exoticism, from Puccini’s “Turandot” and “Madame Butterfly” to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” Of all the so-called grand operas, though, the grandest of the grand is “Aida.”

In Opera Carolina’s version, sets are simple but massive, mostly dominated by a looming Sphinx-like stone face that changes from blood-red at sunset to a ghostly shadow peering from the gloom of the final duet. (In the famous parade after the victory against the Ethiopians, so many ceremonial fans are lined up under its nose that you expect the poor thing to give a giant stone sneeze.)

In the role of Aida herself, Canadian soprano Othalie Graham has a voice of power and depth, particularly in her scene with her father, the captured Ethiopian king Amonasro. Tenor Antonello Palombi as Radames has a softer delivery, but it is particularly beautiful in the first-act aria “Celeste Aida.”

The standout acting of Saturday’s opening night performance, though, went to two others in the cast: Mark Rucker, a lion-like Amonasro, and especially contralto Irina Mishura as Amneris. Her role is a tricky one, taking her from green-eyed jealousy to loss and regret when she has to stand above the tomb where (spoiler alert) Aida and Ramades are slowly smothering after being buried alive together. Her voice is hauntingly rich and her portrayal of the conflicted princess’ pain and grief are palpable.

A surprise in this production is the quality of the dancing, which brings dervish-like whirling priests and intricately choreographed Egyptian servants. Who needs live zebras when you can watch a captive get run through with a sword in mid-air?

One presence on the stage deserves a special shoutout: The Johnson C. Smith University Choir, especially when they help to fill the stage for “Glory to Egypt.” Their joy in this music is obvious and delightful.