‘Aida:’ It’s not complicated, it’s Verdi and it’s beautiful

April 19, 2013 6:30 am  •  By Jaci Webb

The best thing to do if you take in Rimrock Opera Company’s production of “Aida” next week is to sit back and let the music and the spectacle roll over you.

That advice, from conductor Barbara Day Turner, will help the seasoned operagoer as well as a first-timer. A public dress rehearsal of “Aida” is Thursday at 9 a.m. and the full stage production is Saturday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the ABT.

Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” is the grandest of grand opera. This production won’t have the traditional live elephant on stage, but ZooMontana is helping out by lending their lynx and great horned owl. There will also be a ball python on stage. Handlers will be on stage in costume to help with the scenes. “Aida” also boasts the largest chorus ever assembled for a Billings opera, including 55 community vocalists. In addition, 10 ballet dancers and two herald trumpets will perform.

But in the end, it’s the music, some would argue Verdi’s finest, that is the big attraction.

“It’s one beautifully crafted melody after another,” said Andrea Garritano, who makes her Billings debut in the title role.

Riffs from this score are everywhere. You’ve likely heard the melodies in commercials or pop songs, but hearing them sung by professional vocalists in Italian, backed by a live orchestra, will be a wonder.

This production is bittersweet for many area opera fans since it will be ROC artistic director Douglas Nagel’s final show. He is retiring at the end of the season, and the ROC is seeking a replacement. Nagel, who produced 23 operas during his 14-year career with the ROC, is serving as chorus master and producer for “Aida.”

Nagel said this is the most demanding opera he has produced in Billings. Some of the bigger challenges for ROC were to create Egyptian pyramids and temples for the stage, along with a victory parade and war rally with soldiers and slaves.

“Aida” tells the story of a treacherous love triangle framed by the conquest of Ethiopia by the Pharaoh and Radames, the leader of the Egyptian army.

Aida falls in love with Radames, even though his warmongering has led to her becoming a slave. The Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris is also in love with Radames and will stop at nothing to destroy Radames and Aida.

The glory of this opera is Verdi’s musical balance of pomp and pageantry with the deeply moving personal tragedy of the two lovers.

Garritano described the duets she performs with Christopher Bengochea, as Radames, as angelic.

“The duet in the end is surreal,” Garritano said. “Verdi uses the same three-quarter pattern that he used in ‘Traviata’ with the tremolo.”

Other musical pairings have Michelle Berger as Amneris singing with Bengochea and Garritano.

Garritano stepped into the role in March after the original vocalist, Amy Logan, could not perform due to health issues. Garritano said she couldn’t pass up this chance because Aida is one of the premier female roles in opera. Garritano spent a month immersing herself in the music, the language and the heartache.

“It takes so long for these roles to settle; it’s an emotional journey,” Garritano said.

Turner pointed out that for Garritano to perform in this role at a mid-level production meant there was more nurturing and guidance for her. A bigger company may not have provided that.

Director Matt Haney encouraged Berger, a Billings native, to take a different approach to Amneris’ character. He believes she wants to possess Radames, but she doesn’t really love him.

“At the end, I sing about peace and mercy. But it’s too little, too late,” Berger said.

ROC veterans Robert Aaron Taylor, Dennis Rupp, Daren Small and Carolyn Coefield all portray major characters in “Aida.” Jan Halmes, of Missoula, is the new rehearsal pianist and will perform in the orchestra pit as well.

Turner said she first heard the music of “Aida” as a child, listening to Metropolitan Opera Company recordings with her grandmother while they cooked spaghetti sauce together.

“It’s not complicated; it’s beautiful,” Turner said. “It’s just a fantastic opera for veteran opera fans or people who have never seen an opera before.”