In our youth, my brother and I adored Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film The Ten Commandments. Not only did we like the well-written and brilliant take on the beloved biblical story of Moses, but we were also fascinated by the lavish sets and historical aspects of the film. Ancient Egypt – a fascinating and mysterious world of artistic and academic achievement – beckoned to us, as it did to Giuseppe Verdi 140 years ago. The result: his beloved, ancient-Egypt-themed opera Aida, the tragic tale of two princesses, one pure and the other malicious, in love with the same dashing and handsome warrior. This past Saturday, the Lyric Opera of Chicago added yet another blockbuster to their epic, favorite-filled 2011-2012 season with their fourth revival of the Nicolas Joel/Pet Halmen production of this family-friendly opera.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida, © Dan Rest & Lyric Opera of Chicago
Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida,
© Dan Rest & Lyric Opera of Chicago

In this lavish production, DeMille’s influence was definitely present in the sets, costuming, and choreography. The richly etched, massive temple walls, the glistening and serene Nile scene, and even a smoking idol of the mighty Egyptian god Ptah all brought to mind familiar images from DeMille’s movie. Though there were no live horses, camels, or elephants, as I had hoped for in the famous triumphal march scene, the Lyric managed to make up for their disappointing absence with grand masses of marching soldiers and civilians bearing weapons and loads of precious loot – not unlike the epic exodus scene in The Ten Commandments.

Exotic and ballet scenes brilliantly accented all the action, as did the shimmers of rich sequins and brightly-colored brocades and other exotic fabrics that composed the extravagant costumes. Most notably, the bright and deep blue, gold-accented brocade of Aida’s dress conjured up all the essence of the shimmering Nile, while the entire costume of Amneris strangely resembled that of DeMille’s Nefreteri, reinforcing the message of a dangerously jealous Egyptian princess who will stop at nothing to eliminate rivals to her infatuation.

The cast were excellent, and were the star feature of this Aida production. In the signature role of Aida, Chicago native and celebrated Verdi interpreter Sondra Radvanovsky made a triumphal return after her groundbreaking portrayal of Amelia in last year’s Lyric production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball. Vocally flawless, Radvanovsky exquisitely portrayed a heroine ravaged with infatuation and internal torment, constantly torn between her homeland and the man she loves.

Though none of the remaining cast could top Radvanovsky’s rare, show-stealing performance, the remaining cast members proved brilliant as well. As Aida’s beloved Radamès, Italian baritone Marcello Giordani lent his tender and more reserved vocal and acting talents to the role. By contrast, Jill Grove as the sinister Amneris not only recalled DeMille’s Nefreteri in costume, but also in body-language and facial expressions. Her dark and rich mezzo voice further contributed to the impression of royalty laced with deep vengeance, while the similar dark bass tones of Raymond Aceto as the wise high priest Ramfis communicated a message of deep wisdom and authority from above. The exquisitely elegant ballet dancers masterfully rounded off the atmosphere of ancient and mysterious religious fervor.

In conclusion, though veteran fans of the Lyric may decry a restaging of this time-tested production as stale, the result itself is far from stale and breathes new life into an “old” production. The charm of both Verdi’s ancient-Egyptian tale and this production is like a classic book that never becomes old. Radvanovsky alone makes attendance at this production essential for the serious opera aficionado or vocalist, while fans of theater and classic cinema – especially DeMille – will appreciate the amazing theatrical effects and frequent allusions to The Ten Commandments within the costumes and sets.

Furthermore, Verdi’s opera itself, as always, serves as fine fare for families and those new to the wonderful world of opera. Though the ending seems tragic at first, closer examination reveals a happy and spiritually uplifting aspect: Amneris regrets her actions and prays for the safe passage of the lovers’ souls, while Aida decides to forfeit her life to comfort the man she loves, joining him happily in the next life. In fact, during the finale, I could not help but remember the famous Biblical words that “There is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend.” Indeed, laden with its charm, spectacular cast, and cinematic production, this Lyric production of Aida proved a most satisfactory and worthwhile night at the opera.

****1