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Review: In Lyric’s ‘Aida,’ love’s consequences become the story

Review: In Lyric’s ‘Aida,’ love’s consequences become the story

Reginald Smith Jr., fresh from playing (older) Emile in Terence Blanchard’s opera “Champion,” is having a formidable 2024 on the Lyric Opera stage. In the role of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, the formidable baritone with the walking stick functions as the moral conscience of director Francesca Zambello’s staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida,” the first “Aida” at Lyric in more than a decade. This is a robust and fresh take that emphasizes civil strife and the geopolitical consequence of love affairs with enemies, rather than the personal tragedy of the love triangle between Radamès (Russell Thomas), Amneris (Jamie Barton), and Aida (Michelle Bradley).

The most powerful moment comes not as the walls close in on the two doomed lovers, but when Smith’s Amonasro admonishes Bradley’s Aida to “think of our suffering people. You are their only hope.” Not really what a lover not a fighter wants to hear and, in this production, you never feel like Aida has an effective comeback. Radamès’ sensual charms, by intent, only go so far here, as powerfully as Thomas sounds in the role.

Originally conceived in 1871 as an opera about a war between Egypt and Ethiopia, to the extent Verdi knew about those lands, the much-loved opera, invariably a grand pageant, now presents some tricky elements when it comes to representation. Perhaps as a consequence, Zambello essentially has created her own geoscape for this new-to-Chicago staging, as dominated visually by a kind of faux hieroglyphic language — conceived on the West Coast by the Los Angeles-based artist RETNA and then converted into scenic elements by set designer Michael Yeargan. In essence, you have a contemporary staging intentionally devolved from specific geographic identity, or even time, freeing up casting possibilities. But there also are enough keys that those who favor more familiar conceits will feel the original Verdi context is honored. To some degree.

It’s a deft compromise between traditionalism and experimentation, a “you must try to offer both” precept that has been a hallmark of retiring general director Anthony Freud’s post-pandemic programming at Lyric. Freud has looked at season programming that way; it struck me that Zambello was applying the notion here on a more granular level. The production includes the traditional ballet music and dance, for quite the epic experience, but Jessica Lang’s choreography also uses its own language, sometimes very effectively, sometimes rather removed from an aesthetic core not always easy to grasp, but clearly interested in themes of inequality and internal political crisis.

Of course, when you have a design concept revolving around a hieroglyphics text, those images need to be seen vertically to be appreciated and that means Yeargan’s design operates without much in the way of platforms or risers; it’s unusual to see an “Aida’ without constant changes in visual height, given all the demands of spectacle.

That said, you won’t feel the absence of visual pleasure: the costume designer Anita Yavich uses gorgeous fabrics that shimmer in the light, even as she plays with contrasting issues of wealth and power. You will see things switch from masculine-cued military spectacle to feminine space, replete with children. And the staging certainly finds the irony in the ability of all these male leaders to claim any and all choices are being made by deities — an excuse for oppression that flows across centuries.

Bradley and Thomas are often strikingly gentle and sweet in their singing, especially when together; conductor music director Enrique Mazzola finds sharp musical contrasts to underpin what we are watching. There’s a kind of fatality to Thomas’ “Celeste Aida,” acting as a counterpoint to the libretto, and Bradley also focuses vocally far more on her character’s painful condition than the optimistic possibility of love. Add in Barton’s tense, troubled, conniving Amneris, as writ vocally, always seeing the end of this story ahead, and you have not such much a battle for a man but an abdication of broader responsibility. That’s most forcefully articulated by the thrilling Lyric Opera Chorus, the moral, communal force always at the mercy of three wannabe lovers, putting themselves first.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “Aida” (3.5 stars)

When: Through April 7

Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive

Running time: 3 hours, 5 minutes

Tickets:$49-$339 at 312-332-2244 and www.lyricopera.org