One of the grandest of the grand love triangle operas, Verdi’s Aida opened at Seattle Opera on Saturday. Distinguished by a wondrous Egyptian hieroglyph meets hip-hop graffiti production that was stronger on color and interior design than authenticity, designer RETNA’s sets, executed by Michael Yeargan, created a striking backdrop for singing that, for the most part, touched the greatness that makes opera grand.

Ballet © Philip Newton
Ballet
© Philip Newton

Presented in two long bladder-challenging acts, made even longer by original director Francesca Zambello’s choice to include every one of the extended dance numbers that many choose to cut, the “hierophiti” production rarely left the eye wanting. Choreographer Jessica Lang did her best to enliven dance interludes that late 19th century audiences considered essential, even if they interrupted musical flow. Including a charming bevy of boy dancers was an inspired choice that lightened the tedium, and everyone danced exceedingly well.

The spiritual backbone of Egyptian society may have been given short shrift by sets and props that elevated geometric appeal over spiritual import, but the otherwise bare stone walls of Egyptian temples have rarely had it so good. Superb lighting from Mark McCullough and Peter W. Mitchell ensured that every decorative element of Yeargan’s scenery would make its mark.

<i>Aida</i> at Seattle Opera © Philip Newton
Aida at Seattle Opera
© Philip Newton

Given the importance of spectacle to modern day productions of Aida, costume designer Anita Yavich’s decision to outfit Egyptian warriors in WWII soldier dress, with members of the priesthood indicated by translucent black gauze robes draped over their soldier drag, was of questionable effectiveness. Even more suspect were uniforms for military dancers that resembled those of the Red Guard.

With the all-important singing is where Seattle Opera scored and stumbled. As the captive slave girl Aida, who is secretly in love with Egyptian army commander Radamès (tenor Brian Jagde), big-voiced soprano Leah Crocetto projected with ease. From her first soaring phrase, the uncommon radiance and beauty of her highs won the audience over. Her acting, too, was deeply convincing. “Ritorna vincitor!”, in which Aida reveals her conflicted love for both the Egyptian Radamès and her own people – the “enemy” force led by her father Amonasro (Gordon Hawkins) – received the longest applause of the evening. Low notes had telling power, highs glowed, and every phrase was rounded with finesse.

Gordon Hawkins (Amonasro) and Leah Crocetto (Aida) © Philip Newton
Gordon Hawkins (Amonasro) and Leah Crocetto (Aida)
© Philip Newton

At the end of the production’s first half, however, Crocetto’s highest notes turned a mite squally. After intermission, she seemed ill at ease. Crocetto omitted one line of “O patria mia” and never fully recovered. While the voice remained strong and filled with radiant beauty on high – there were some gorgeous phrases – her crucial top notes were shaky and, at times, weakly sustained before being cut short.

Jagde’s Radamès came on strong, punching out words in his opening “Celeste Aida” with bullish determination. Finesse and grace did not figure largely in his singing. Only once in the opera’s second half did Jagde reveal that he could sing softly, with a modicum of sweetness. While his glistening tone was admirable, his portrayal failed to evoke sympathy for his character.

Mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic was outgunned by her fellow leads. She seemed to husband her resources until the end, where she worked hard to produce the requisite volume. But despite her beauty and imperious bearing, the granitic low tones and clear diction of a great Amneris, which are absolutely essential for her final prayer above the tomb of the asphyxiating Aida and Radamès, were absent.

Milijana Nikolic (Amneris) © Philip Newton
Milijana Nikolic (Amneris)
© Philip Newton

The secure vocal beauty of soprano Marcy Stonikas in the much smaller role of the High Priestess was far more gratifying. Others sang exceedingly well. The unyieldingly militant bass and comportment of Daniel Sumegi (Ramfis), the steadiness of bass-baritone Clayton Brainerd (Egyptian King), and the secure authority of Hawkins made their mark. There were a few wobbles on high, with Hawkins stretched at the very top, but when these other characters held forth, Verdi was in unquestionably good hands.

The same and more must be said for the conducting of John Fiore, who embraced the full measure of Verdi’s demands with a dedication that took singers’ needs to heart. If only he had encouraged more rubato and shading, and convinced Jagde to cool it some. John Keene’s chorus was superb, and E. Loren Meeker’s stage direction surprisingly effective. There were few stock gestures.

In the end, the evening demonstrated how difficult it is to meet Verdi’s demands with flawless strength and beauty. Few productions have been as eye-catching and unforgettable as Zambello and RETNA’s.