For its first production of the 2006-07 season, Nashville Opera is turning the Tennessee Performing Arts Center into a frickin' zoo, a highbrow habitat for smelly mammals, exotic birds and one large, slimy and rather disgusting reptile.
We're talking, of course, about Nashville Opera's production of Verdi's Aida, a performance staged in collaboration not only with the Nashville Symphony and Nashville Ballet but also with the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. So during the perennially popular triumphal march of Act 2 on opening night Thursday, we got a circus parade of beasts, from Bailey the serval (a kind of large African cat) and Callie the white camel to Isabella the albino Burmese python—and we're happy to report that no creature was harmed in this single-minded pursuit of elite entertainment.
Without question, Nashville Opera's production was most memorable for its visual splendor, which is what you might expect given that Aida (ever since its premiere in 1871) has almost always been staged as a kind of overblown costume drama. Yet in essence, it is a story about love and the tragic consequences that befall the protagonists when they reveal that emotion. The plot is a classic love triangle set in ancient Egypt.
Aida, an Ethiopian princess enslaved in Egypt, and her mistress Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian king, are both in love with the captain of the Egyptian guards, Radames. From the outset, Radames' secret love for Aida and his loyalty to Egypt put him in a tricky spot. It's even more delicate for Aida, who must balance her secret love for Radames with her loyalty to her father Amonasro, a prisoner of war in Egypt who's hiding his identity as the Ethiopian King.
Radames and Aida do not find emotional peace until the final scene, when they're buried alive in a tomb and can finally express their true love. As you can imagine, the preceding three hours of this opera is a tale of tormented humanity, yet sadly the cast in Nashville's Aida often seem as wooden as the company's elaborate props.
Aside from a certain concerned look of constipation, tenor Michael Hayes (Radames) seldom conveys a sense of genuine anguish, while the baritones John Marcus Bindel (King of Egypt) and Rosendo Flores (Egyptian High Priest) mostly stand inert, like a pair of frozen fish sticks. Soprano Michele Crider (Aida) and mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee (Amneris) fair better, but even they seemed more caught up in vocal technique than in actually expressing the meaning of their words.
And these days that's exactly what you'd expect from most operas productions, and not just Aida. Opera directors, who are mostly lazy idiots, know we live in a visual age, and so they place a premium on spectacle. For them, it's fine if the singing and acting are merely adequate (or worse). The result, however, isn't opera but rather parody of opera.
Fortunately, this Aida does have one thing going for it, aside from its beastly and visual appeal, and that's its singing, which should be the most important thing in opera anyway. Crider was the best of the singers and proved to be a spectacular Aida—she performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera last year. On Thursday, she delivered every note with crystalline clarity, singing with precision and perfect intonation even in the most stratospheric region of her voice.
Hayes was less precise (he often seemed to be tossing his notes in the air and hoping for the best), but he was a true heroic tenor who sang with power all evening. For her part, Bybee revealed a plumy (if not always tonally accurate) voice, while Flores and Bindel both sang with dark heft.
Conductor Tyrone Paterson led the Nashville Symphony in a beautiful and prismatic account of the Verdi score, while members of Nashville Ballet presented the dance sequences with grace and taste. The performance repeats Saturday at TPAC's Andrew Jackson Hall. For tickets call (615) 255-2787.