Popera Songs Are Forgettable
There are two things to be said about this production of Aida, a rock-pop version of the Verdi opera with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice. The first is that it's a shlocky, sentimental piece of theater, with sappy music and idiotic book and lyrics. Almost all opera plots are ridiculous, of course; it's the magnificence of the music that makes opera art and earns our forgiveness. But here, although the songs are tuneful and go down easily, not a single one is memorable, witty, catchy or affecting, and the love songs are particularly boring.
But the second thing that must be said is that the Arvada Center's production, under the direction of Rod A. Lansberry, is so well done that the material almost doesn't matter.
The story is of Aida, a Nubian woman captured and enslaved by an Egyptian captain, Radames. Radames gives Aida as a gift to the Princess Amneris, to whom he's betrothed, but naturally, he rapidly falls in love with the spunky Aida. Equally naturally, we soon discover that Aida's not any old captive, but a Nubian princess. After some plot complications involving Radames's evil, power-mad father; Aida's leadership of her lovingly worshipful Nubian fellow slaves; the capture of Aida's royal father; and Amneris's transformation (despite the fact that she's been jilted by Radames) from a spoiled, materialistic brat to a thoughtful queen, Radames and Aida are found guilty of treason. Sentenced to death, they are buried alive, singing and sniffling soulfully away as the smothering sands sift down upon them.
The frustrating thing about the banality of the songs is that the cast is full of first-rate voices. Soara-Joye Ross has real star quality as Aida, even if the role requires only the most purely stereotypical poses and emotions from her. We might hunger for a flash of humor, a moment of individuality, but there's no room for it here. Nonetheless, the lady is dignified and beautiful, and she sure can sing. As she ripped into the grief-stricken ballad "Easy as Life," I thought for a moment that Elton John had transcended himself and his genre. But then I realized it was Ross's voice, rather than the song, that was lifting the moment above the mundane. And also, I must admit I struggled throughout the number against a sense of being manipulated -- the way it went on and on, as if the composer were saying, "I'm going to keep pouring out the emotion here and repeating the refrain until I've forced you to feel something."
Princess Amneris is played by another standout performer, Julie Reiber -- and she actually has one decent song, a funny one about her addiction to fashion. On the love ballads, Reiber's voice is as seductive as warmed honey. If this crabbed old critic's heart were capable of tears, I'd have shed them when she glided into "I Know the Truth." But with this kind of musical theater, you know that every time a song begins with quiet intensity, it'll take only minutes before a wet-eyed, throbbing build crashes down and drowns the stage. Peter James Zielinski, who plays Radames, has a strong voice, too, though his tone is less pleasing than those of his two ladies. As Aida's friend and fellow slave Mereb, Arthur W. Marks deploys a richly melting tenor. There's strong vocal support everywhere in this cast and ensemble, particularly from Darrel Blackburn as the evil Zoser, and the accompaniment, under Susan Draus, is clean and energetic.
This is a show about singing rather than acting. I didn't really believe in the love between Radames and Aida, and the growing friendship of Aida and the fretful princess Amneris was only slightly more convincing. There's a little humanity from Marcus Waterman's Pharaoh, but for the most part you get a series of glossy, self-contained Big Solo Moments interspersed with hyper-designed Big Group Numbers.
But the production does boast a second great pleasure in addition to the soaring voices, and that's visual. Working with lighting designer Gail J. Gober, Joseph J. Egan has created a series of elegant scenes -- the interior of a museum, a blue pool of water shimmering against the back wall. There's a wonderful moment that juxtaposes the shapes of palm trees with the swaying bodies of a row of women crossing the stage, baskets on their heads. Choreographer Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck gets credit for much of this effect, and all her dance sequences -- from the dark, angular movements of a group of soldiers to the seductive gyrations of three belly dancers -- are delightful. So is Hilsabeck's own dancing.
Aida, which cost the Arvada Center $450,000 to mount, is an empty box, beautifully wrapped, a swirl of vivid sound and color around sugar-scented air. In short, a pleasurable enough experience, as long you're not looking for nourishment.
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