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Opera Southwest’s ‘Aida’ unforgettable, sans elephants

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Why even bother to do Aida if you don’t have elephants?” So said a friend of mine. Well, the spectacular new production of the Verdi opera by Opera Southwest does not have elephants (no doubt much to the relief of the good folks at the National Hispanic Cultural Center).

It does, however, have some huge voices and a dream set. Dahl Delu, a local artist (no surprise!), designed a set to rival any production (except perhaps for the elephants!). The entire stage is filled with a beautiful and tasteful reproduction of Egyptian décor and hieroglyphs, with the two gods Horus and Anubis like gargoyles overseeing the stage. Appropriately, the set garnered the first round of applause.

The origin of the story idea is rather a tangled tale, but it was not, as is sometimes thought, written to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. The canal was already open when Verdi agreed to the assignment. The music contrasts loud tub-thumping orchestration with intimate personal scenes. It also mixes simulations of ancient Egyptian music (whatever that may have sounded like) such as the ode to mighty Phtha, with unmistakably Italian music.

Shana Blake Hill, last here for OSW’s production of “The Pearl Fishers” last year, sings the title role. She gives a heartfelt performance of the ironic “Ritorna vincitor” (Return victorious!) as she, the Ethiopian slave, sees the Egyptian army feted as they march off to conquer her people. The voice grows yet stronger in the second half, particularly in the duets.

Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian king, is sung by mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez. The program lists her as from Albuquerque but recently returned from impressive performances at Covent Garden and the Welsh National Opera. Any opera company would be proud to present her as Amneris. Her rich, powerful tone is rock solid from top to bottom, capable of a range of color, subtle expression and the force to surmount the thickest orchestration. What a score for OSW!

Clay Hilley as Radamés, Captain of the Guard and secretly in love with Aida, clearly has a set of pipes and it not afraid to show them off, especially in his opening aria, “Celeste Aida.” It is not until the final act when he takes it down a peg that we actually hear some color in his voice.

To complete the quartet, Amonasro, captured King of Ethiopia and father of Aida, is sung by Tim Mix, OSW’s Don Giovanni in a recent past production. Mix provides a resonant tone and an aristocratic bearing to the proud king’s endurance in captivity.

An enlarged chorus fills the stage completely, as Roger Melone’s New Mexico Symphonic Chorus joins OSW’s chorus for pinpoint rhythmic precision and some truly epic sonorities, certainly including the Triumphal March, the most famous excerpt of this opera. And there must be somewhere in the vicinity of a hundred gorgeously colorful costumes.

The OSW orchestra, primarily members of the New Mexico Philharmonic, render the score superbly, directed by Anthony Barrese.