Verdi : AidaHouston, 1987 (Video)
Director: Emil Tchakarov
(Edited from the New York Times)
When the Khedive of Egypt, as legend has it, wanted something suitably boffo to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, he commissioned Verdi to compose Aida. Unfortunately, that is one of opera's more durable myths. Still, a proper Aida can be prime grand-opening material, as this city well understands. For the inaugural performance Thursday evening in the Alice and George Brown Theater of the $70 million Wortham Center, the Houston Grand Opera once again turned to Aida, just as it had 21 years ago in opening its former home, Jones Hall.
Despite the company's deserved reputation over the years for excellence, and the presence of an international cast of top-rung Verdians, only an optimist would have predicted that this dressed-to-the-teeth civic celebration would develop into a musical event. Acceptable performances of Aida are rare under the best of circumstances, and gala opening nights generally are extramusical happenings that the opera lover is glad to put behind him.
And yet, this one turned out to be credibly sung and handsomely produced, a happy christening and augury for this 2,200-seat house whose acoustics seemed remarkably well-balanced and congenial to voices. Notes registered palpably, whether as pianissimos of the well-schooled chorus or thrilling outcries of soloists soaring over massive ensembles. The orchestra pit, partly submerged in modified Bayreuth style, helps eliminate a psychological barrier between stage and audience. It also allows voices to carry into the house with less effort, minimizing ugly forcing. Emil Tchakarov's thoughtful conducting worked toward that end, too.
Mirella Freni, taking on the title role for the first time in eight years, made light of its weighty challenges. Her versatile soprano showed a slight hardening on the highest notes, but for the most part the tone quality was remarkably pleasing. Aida never has seemed the most natural role for her, but she found her way deep into the character, most surely in sustaining an impassioned O, patria mia, but with similar success in the pathos of the tomb scene.
Placido Domingo, as her confused lover Radames, sang and acted rather stolidly. Still, few tenors today carry off more sonorously and convincingly the part of the muscular hero who saves Memphis from its Ethiopian enemies. Stefania Toczyska's unusually sympathetic Amneris stood up to Aida in every dramatic respect. Both Ingvar Wixell (Amonasro) and Nicolai Ghiaurov (Ramfis) acquitted themselves honorably, though Mr. Ghiaurov's bass has lost much of its velvety power. David Langan, as the King, looked and sounded a little young for the job.
Pier Luigi Pizzi's uncluttered direction and stark designs bowed to ''Aida'' tradition, but certainly did not scrape. Yes, he brought on elephants in the triumphal scene, but not the live kind, thank you. Huge but toylike tuskers with warriors astride were rolled about on wheels in a battle dance (inventively choreographed by Richard Caceres). A children's ballet, against all the odds, actually proved palatable.
The sets consisted largely of ceiling-to-floor panels and pillars that slid in and out as scenes shifted. Mr. Pizzi, who likes to contrast brilliant light and Stygian gloom, illuminated the action with dozens of hand-held torches, as if to emphasize the darkly violent side of Egyptian society. The most memorable image, however, was a 25-foot-high bronze death's head of the god Ptah, which dominated the first temple scene (and, less logically, the Nile scene).
The Wortham Center, which covers more than three acres of downtown Houston, was designed by the same architectural firm that gave the world the Astrodome. It has an air of confidence and spacious grandeur that the Khedive himself might have approved.
Besides the Brown Theater -which even on first hearing one would be inclined to rate among the few satisfactory opera houses built anywhere in America during this century - the center includes a 1,100-seat theater meant for plays, chamber music and operas less heroically scaled than ''Aida.'' It should cosily accommodate Mozart's ''Abduction From the Seraglio'' later this season. In respect to opera's housing problems, at least, Houston can give lessons to New York.