An ABC of opera

After stepping out of Michigan Opera Theatre's winning, million-dollar production of Aida last Saturday night, it's difficult to remember those first couple of seasons in the Detroit Opera House. When restoration began a decade ago on what was to be the first permanent home for Michigan Opera Theatre, the Opera House's lovely interior was shrouded by sheeting. But the shows went on and loyal opera-goers stepped over cables and dodged scaffolding to get to their seats. (The building was originally a 1920s movie palace called the Capitol Theater, designed by C. Howard Crane, the architect behind the Fox Theatre, State Theatre and Orchestra Hall.)

In time to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Detroit Opera House is now fully restored. It's the perfect setting to enjoy Aida, Michigan Opera Theatre's 35th season spring opener, which features extraordinary sets, costumes and lighting, as well as rewarding performances both on stage and in the pit.

It should be noted that with a gorgeous and permanent home, MOT can now commit to world premieres. It can program seasons ahead of time and contract stars whose schedules are often booked years in advance.

One such star is the tenor Salvatore Licitra. Licitra made his name in 2002 after filling in for Luciano Pavarotti at New York's Metropolitan Opera. His star was justified at last Saturday's performance when Licitra sang Radames, the tragic hero in Aida.

Alongside La Bohème and Carmen, Aida is one of the "big three" called the "ABCs" among opera-goers. For all its pomp and circumstance, it's a simple story of love and war. Aida is an Ethiopian princess whose identity is concealed when she's enslaved by Egypt's Crown Princess Amneris. Both women are in love with the Egyptian warrior, Radames, but he only loves Aida. When he returns victorious after defeating the Ethiopians in battle, he's betrothed to Amneris. Meanwhile, Aida is torn between helping her father win back his country or saving the man she loves, the leader of the opposing army. These struggles continue until she and Radames die tragically.

Licitra is a handsome and barrel-chested singer with a huge, resonating voice. He's the perfect Verdian tenor because he's capable of dramatic vigor and hitting the difficult high notes.

No less wondrous is the singing of Indra Thomas as Aida. DOH director David DiChiera brought Thomas in a few years back, when her voice was just beginning to find its way into the Verdian repertory; she has since sung here in Il Trovatore. Her voice has opened up at the top; these soaring, sustained high notes seem to float on air. And her onstage presence is worthy of the Aida character.

Another MOT discovery is Russian-born mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura, who was spotted early on by DiChiera and given her first American operatic role as Madam Butterfly's Suzuki in 1994. Since, Mishura has gone from her southeastern Michigan home to sing in major opera houses in the United States and Europe, and returns regularly to sing for MOT. (Her turn earlier this year as Adalgisa in Norma was brilliant.) And she's wonderful as the vengeful Egyptan princess Amneris. Her tones and phrases are allowed to smolder in her theatricality, and in her voice and beauty. It's fair to say that Mishura is one of the finest mezzos in the business.

Other performers give Aida edge: Hao Jiang Tian as the high priest Ramfis, Valerian Ruminski as the King of Egypt, Gregg Baker as the Ethiopian King Amonsaro, Lonel Woods as a messenger, and the off-stage Elena Repnikova Beck as the High Priestess.

In the pit, conductor Giuliano Carella massages a carefully etched first act out of the MOT Orchestra, allowing for nuance in the singing. He keeps the sweep and flow of the music intact while sidestepping the bombast and forced tempos sometimes heard in Aida. The Nile scene was of great orchestral beauty.

Though MOT's financial share of the new production is $250,000 (Aida is a joint production with Florida Grand Opera, Florentine Opera and Opera Carolina), it looks like a million bucks. Designer Allen Charles Klein, lighting designer Kendall Smith and stage director Bliss Hebert have collaborated in a way that doesn't break new ground — is it even possible to reinvent Aida? — yet they capture the moods and hues of an ancient time, presenting the Egyptian empire at its most opulent.

Klein has produced stunning costumes of white with gold masks and headpieces, armorial attire with layered golden sleeves. He clothed the usually semi-naked female dancers — tastefully choreographed by Rosa Mercedes — in blue; each of the principals is costumed in colors that suit the character.

Gigantic sets are dominated by gold, which is a color that streams throughout the production. It is, for the most part, impressive. But if the huge pectoral-like pendant that hangs above the scene in Amneris' chambers and the golden tusks carried on at the beginning of a triumphal scene look more bling than royal ware, everything else succeeds. The faux marble scrims are a masterpiece.

Smith's keen eye is masterful; in scene after scene he creates orange, gold, yellow or pale tones that enhance the sets and heighten the drama.

Hebert uses the settings to maximum advantage. He supports the lead singers in their scenes to keep the story focused on the intimate drama. He handles the crowd scenes with aplomb.

In the final scene, the lovers embrace in a reddish gold tomb area. Atop this, Amneris stands in a pale light — a large white circle glowing above her on the dark backdrop. As the lovers succumb, Amneris, with arms outstretched, sings the final words of the opera, a ghostly prayer for peace. It's a scene worthy of the admission price.


Aida is 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 26, 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 28 and 29, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 30, at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit; 313-237-7464;

To celebrate the opening of the Ford Center for Arts and Learning, which features classrooms and performance spaces in the Broadway complex, there's a 10th anniversary Aida concert at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 27, including a free tour and demonstrations at the new Ford Performing Arts Center, 4-7 p.m.

Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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