War and forgiveness? 

Atlanta Opera debuts new home with Aïda

The confusion begins in the parking lot, where the exultant horns of Verdi's Triumphal March peal from the stereo of a well-appointed SUV. Inside, tuxedoed and gowned opera fanatics hold an impromptu tailgate party before the opening of Aida. The Atlanta Opera has moved to the Civic Center after nine years at the Fox, bringing an end to the usual excitement of parking at the Georgian Terrace and trying to cross Peachtree without getting killed. In the wide asphalt expanse of the Civic Center's lot (and, later, inside the unfamiliar building), we shiny-shoed opera lovers weave and wander like a pack of poodles lost in the Sahara.

The confusion briefly infects the orchestra and principles, who trip over their tempos a few times early in the first act. But then Atlanta native Indra Thomas, in the role of Aida, sings her first aria, and oh great gods of the Nile, who the hell cares where the restrooms are because we never want to leave these seats and this moment. In the recently renovated Civic Center, the acoustics are magnificent, and Thomas plays the space like a violin, ringing every corner with clear calls for victory, riding the resonances of her regret through deep decrescendos to the faintest pianissimos.

Coincidentally, Aida is singing about her own confusion. The enslaved Ethiopian princess is in love with (and loved by) an Egyptian general, Radames (Tonio di Paolo), who is preparing to lead the Egyptian army against the invading forces of Aida's father, Amonasro (Mark Rucker). To pray for Radames is to curse her father, but to pray for her country is to betray her love.

Egypt professes to be godly, but is falling into ruthless militarism, urged on by priests who say that pity will only embolden the enemy. (Sound familiar?) Amonasro turns Aida's loyalty to country and kin against her with treacherous demands that she betray her love to steal military secrets for Ethiopia. And Amneris (Nina Terentieva), an Egyptian princess, well, she wants Radames for herself, and she doesn't care who she has to crush to get him.

Imagine Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed by warring nations instead of feuding families, and you've got the central plot. And, yes, it ends in a tomb.

Roughly half of the story is told in temples and tombs, where haunting Egyptian chants and ululating melodies play out an implicit sacred struggle between the mighty but merciful Egyptian goddess Isis and Ptah, the fiery Egyptian creator god Verdi associated with Vulcan and war.

Director Dejan Miladinovic, an amateur Egyptologist, stages the various religious rituals of Aida using strong and simple geometries based on descriptions found in the Book of the Dead and other preserved Egyptian records. Atlanta's Ballethnic Dance Company contributes wonderfully creepy modern ballet with African infusions.

Aida ends with a repentant Amneris singing, Pace t'implore ... pace, pace, pace. The supertitles translate this as, I pray for forgiveness ... forgiveness, [etc.]. More confusion. Maybe this is just a paranoid conspiracy theory borne of reading too much Al Franken and Michael Moore, but has anyone seen Karl Rove in town? Or maybe Donald Rumsfeld? (I hear he's got some free time now that Condi's in charge of Iraq.) One of them must have had a hand in translating the libretto. Get out your Italian-English dictionaries. Pace means peace. Forgiveness would be perdono, or maybe clemenza. Horrified by the fury of a war that has claimed the man she loves and all that is good about Egypt, Amneris isn't praying for forgiveness; she's praying for peace.

thomas.bell@creativeloafing.com

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