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Opera's fare is love and war

January 27, 2008

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    January 27, 2008
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    Opera Carolina News

Opera's fare is love and war

It's the epitome of grand opera.

Trumpets herald the victorious army's return from battle. The populace gives a thunderous greeting. Spear-carrying soldiers parade past. Exotic animals are in tow, giving a peek of the faraway land the army has conquered.

That's just a glimpse of "Aida," Giuseppe Verdi's voyage to ancient Egypt. Setting the slave Aida's fight for love against the background of war, it's so much to tackle that no opera company tries it often.

"Aida" returns to Charlotte for the first time in a decade, beginning Thursday. Banking on its popularity, Opera Carolina will give it four performances rather than the usual three.

Grandiose as "Aida" is, audiences love it for more than that.

Love and war

Imagine if "Gone with the Wind" consisted only of battle and suffering, without the romance. It wouldn't grab anyone so much, would it? The same goes for "Aida." At first -- as in "Gone with the Wind," come to think of it -- war is only in the offing.Almost as soon as the curtain goes up, the Egyptian soldier Radames (pronounced RAH-dah-mess) is thinking about his adored Aida. In one of the opera's most beloved numbers, he dreams that he could lift her to "a throne next to the sun." Soon after he finishes, we discover the complication. The Egyptian princess Amneris is infatuated with him. Aida, her rival in love, is an underling -- a slave from Ethiopia. Now, that's trouble. Worse yet for Aida, her homeland is the country that Egypt will soon fight.


In the second scene, "Aida" starts turning into a big production. The Egyptians install Radames at the head of the army and send the warriors off to battle. When the army returns, a couple of scenes later, the spectacle reaches its peak.

For most opera companies, including Charlotte's, getting this onstage demands a troop surge. To flesh out the chorus, Opera Carolina is bringing in the Concert Choir from Charlotte's Gethsemane AME Zion Church. About 40 extras will plays soldiers and other participants in the celebrations.

Zebra, camel and watusi

In many opera lovers' minds, the Triumphal Scene is the opera's focal point, said James Meena, Opera Carolina's director. "Everyone is anticipating what kind of exotic things they're going to see."The most grandiose productions may have an elephant or two. The Belk Theater doesn't have space for that, Meena said. But the Lazy 5 Ranch in Mooresville is providing more manageable fauna, including snakes, a zebra, a camel and a watusi. (That's the African ox, not the 1960s dance.) At the procession's climax, Radames' chariot will be drawn by a white horse.

Two by two

When the Triumphal Scene concludes, halfway through "Aida," that's the end of spectacle, at least in the sense of stagefuls of people.

When Aida sings longingly about her homeland in the next scene, Meena notes, that's the last solo aria. "Aida" becomes what it really has been all along: a series of duets, each one electrified by love, rivalry or revenge.

Pay attention to these duets. They're where the real action is.

After Radames' opening aria, his scene with Amneris shows that her sights are set on him -- to his alarm. While Radames is away on the battlefield, Amneris uses a confrontation with Aida as psychological warfare: The princess tells the slave first that Radames has been killed in battle, then that he really lives. In these duets and others, the passions emerge in music whose fire and melody stand up alongside all the thunder of the crowd scenes.

With the final duet, the opera with so much pageantry ends in a murmur. Radames is sealed alive in a tomb as punishment for betraying his country. (Love made him do it, wouldn't you know.) Aida slips in to join him, and their voices sail heavenward.

If the singers have the finesse, the duet lives up to the vision for it that Verdi described in a letter to his librettist:

"I should like something sweet, otherworldly ... a farewell to life."

Standing the test

Because Opera Carolina's four performances take place on consecutive days, two sets of singers will play the main characters. That gives everyone time for a little rest from the taxing roles.Assembling two casts is just one more way "Aida" is a test, Meena says. He thinks Opera Carolina is ready for it.

"The degree to which we meet these challenges is, I hope, going to show a lot about where the company is." Opera | Continued from 1E PREVIEW


Opera Carolina stages Giuseppe Verdi's Egyptian epic. Sung in Italian with English supertitles.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. next Sunday.
WHERE: Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130 N. Tryon St.
TICKETS: $15-$95.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000; www.operacarolina.org.