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Guided by Voices

By Bence Olveczky

Presented by Boston Lyric Opera

At the Shubert Theatre

November 16, 19, 21

Tickets $27.50-$108

Egypt in Boston, a collaboration between some of the city’s most revered cultural institutions, got off to a good start last week with the premiere of Boston Lyric Opera’s Aida. Verdi’s monumental opera about tragic love in ancient Egypt was a fitting start to an undertaking that includes the Fine Arts Museum’s blockbuster exhibition Pharaohs of the Sun (ongoing), Boston Ballet’s Cleopatra (May 2000), and Science Museum’s OmniMax offering Mysteries of Egypt (ongoing).

Composed by Verdi in 1871 for the inauguration of Cairo’s new opera house, Aida is one of the most lavish operas ever written. Inspired by the grandeur of the pyramids, it usually receives a megalomaniac staging, with horses and elephants commonly employed to fuel the extravaganza. But the homeless Boston Lyric Opera (their proposal for a new opera house was recently turned down) is forced to exercise a type of restraint not usually associated with Aida.

Their temporary shelter is provided by the Shubert Theatre, which has a stage half the size of what’s needed for opera. Add to that the mediocre acoustics and the uncomfortable seats, and you know that the odds are against you. Thankfully, the Boston Lyric Opera works around most of the limitations with admirable ingenuity, and, with Leon Major in the director’s chair, the end product is an intimate and enjoyable version of Verdi’s classic.

The singing may not be world class (to see the big stars, I advise you go to the Metropolitan Opera in New York), but it’s close enough. The youthful cast assembled for this short run is made up of singers who are on the verge of stardom, and -- judging by their Boston performances -- some of them could easily make it all the way to the top.

Geraldine McMillan, in the title role, is definitely a contender. She neither looks nor acts the part, but her sweet and voluptuous soprano does a good job in conveying the emotions her role requires. Aida’s love interest is Radames, a general who is set to marry the Egyptian princess Amneris. With two women at his feet, Radames should be portrayed as a charismatic young leader, lest the whole opera into a farce. Unfortunately, French tenor and former trumpet player Jean-Pierre Furlan is no Prince Charming, but his voice, strong and secure, albeit with a limited range, makes up for much of his shortcomings as an actor.

Russian mezzo-soprano Maria Riadtchikova makes her America debut as Amneris, and while she has some problems with the high notes, her otherwise clear and powerful voice conveys the princess’s frustration and disappointment in an impressive manner. But the best of the lot is baritone Brent Ellis, who sings the part of Amonasro, the Ethiopian king. Thirty years into his career, Ellis has both a commanding stage presence and a sturdy voice, and should be a true inspiration for his younger colleagues.

While the singing ranges from good to excellent, the acting is mediocre at best, and if opera in general seems like an anachronism to you, Boston’s Aida won’t make you change your mind. Watching the show with a cynical eye, you’ll see a bunch of overweight divas stumbling across the stage, singing about impossible love and other such tragedies. But if you are an opera buff who’s in it for the music, chances are you’ll leave content. Stephen Lord conducts the orchestra with conviction and passion, and the singers make Verdi’s beautiful arias come alive despite the many limitations of the Shubert Theatre.

As for the quality of the production, it falls somewhere between the singing and the acting: it’s functional and efficient without being either inspiring or off-putting. The set is an abstract version of an Egyptian temple, with a sandstone-colored arched entrance framing the stage. Wide stairs lead up to the sanctuary, behind which is a backdrop of alternating Egyptian images: a beautifully lit bas-relief of the pyramids, frescoes of battle scenes, and a scorching red tropical sunset. The stylized and colorful costumes also add to the exotic feel of the production. While the staging works well as a vehicle for Verdi’s music, it’s not the theatrical feast that modern opera has the potential to be.

Aida’s shortcomings are most obviously felt in the frequent interludes. Filled with seemingly uninspired ballet pieces performed by amateurish dancers on a tiny area in front of the stairs, these embarrassing intermezzos’ only redeeming quality is their transience. You never have to wait long before the singers take over with their vocal evocation of drama and intrigue. Given that the reason most people go to the opera is to be lulled by the music, Boston’s Aida is a mainstream success. It may be preaching to the converted, but at least it’s a sermon that’s enjoyable.