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Utah Opera to perform Verdi’s iconic 'Aida'

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Opera is excitedly preparing to perform Giuseppe Verdi’s classic and iconic “Aida,” an opera that stage director Garnett Bruce said shows the “contrast between the grand and the human” and “calls for epic forces.”

Conductor Ari Pelto said the production is “laden with expression and importance and color.”

“It has this incredibly tender, moving love story, and the spectacle of a civilization that is long gone,” he said. “The story is very present; they are singing about things that are very much now, all the real things of society and life’s experience. That’s what makes ‘Aida’ so impressive and so loved.”

While war is raging between Ethiopia and Egypt, Aida, the princess of Ethiopia, is taken captive and forced to become a servant for Amneris, the princess of Egypt. Determined to free his daughter from servitude, Amonasro, the king of Ethiopia, attacks Egypt.

Meanwhile, Radames, a young Egyptian soldier, has fallen for Aida, and both of the young lovers struggle with their conflicting emotions. Can they be loyal to their own countries while loving the enemy?

When the Ethiopian army is defeated, a disguised King Amonasro is taken captive. Radames is struck by the unknown captive’s noble countenance and begs the king of Egypt to have mercy on Amonasro. The king of Egypt, pleased with Radames’ compassion, grants him Amneris’ hand in marriage.

While Amneris is excited for her upcoming marriage, she suspects that Radames’ heart belongs to another: Aida. Driven by anger and jealousy, Amneris begs Radames to deny his love for Aida — with terrible consequences if he will not.

“(Amenris’) power and her jealousy and what it causes her to do … (is) a terrible tragedy,” Pelto said.

Mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner is making her Utah Opera debut in the role of Amneris.

“She is quite wily,” Goeldner said. “Amneris has her very formal, stylized public persona, and then there’s her irrational love for Radames that is quite obsessive. It’s this insane love that has destroyed her life. She is the catalyst, and she goes too far. She causes what happens to happen, and she is going to have to not only live with heartbreak for the rest of her life, but guilt.”

Soprano Jennifer Check is returning to Utah Opera as Aida.

“Aida is a princess and a slave,” Check said. “She was meant to be a princess, but due to circumstances, she is Amneris’ head servant, the head servant of her enemy. The head person that takes care of the princess is a powerful position, and we think she was rather smart and rose there quite quickly.”

Also returning to Utah Opera is tenor Marc Heller as Radames.

“The soldier is simple — not shallow, simple,” Heller said. “Radames wants to gain power so that he can unite everybody and have peace. He wants to end conflict so that he can somehow, in an idealistic world that will never exist, have Aida returned peacefully with him to her homeland so that they can rule together.”

Check, Goeldner and Heller agree that although “Aida” is set 3,000 years in the past, it is a very present story.

“These are universal emotions that are playing out,” Goeldner said. “We may be dressed as princesses and slaves and warlords, but the universal love story is always there and always real. Have I loved and lost or loved in vain? Absolutely!”

“And have we seen imperiousness, and behind-the-scenes political maneuvers?” Heller added. “We are in them right now!”

Check also stressed the importance of making the opera personal for the audience.

“No matter what character you’re playing, you have to find something to relate to because it’s the only way that we are going to be relatable to the audience,” Check said. “For Aida, there’s the love for Radames, there’s the love for her father, and the father-daughter relationship. You find the little things that you can relate to, and make the story your own.”

While Pelto praised the talent of the singers in bringing the opera to life and to the present, he also pointed out the brilliance of the music.

“It has the iconic, grand, triumphal march that practically everyone recognizes,” Pelto said. “And 60 chorus members, the entire orchestra, the extra trumpets onstage, dancers, soloists — it’s an incredibly impressive and iconic centerpiece to this opera. And then, moments later, you’re in an incredibly delicate, personal world of ‘Aida.’ The truth is, it would not be the masterpiece, it would not be the classic, if it weren’t for the fact that Verdi was a great master. Out of his imagination and his immense skill, he gave us this incredible masterpiece.”

Bruce said the sets and costumes play a significant factor in making “Aida” the spectacle that it is. While many productions of “Aida” have sets designed to make Egypt look ancient, depicting the crumbling 3,000-year-old relics that many people associate with Egyptian history, Tony Award-winning set designer Michael Yeargan wanted to take a different approach.

“(Yeargan) wanted to approach the piece so that it was fresh, Egypt at the height of its power,” Bruce said. “The paint is clean, the pieces aren’t crumbling, the lines are precise.”

Bruce says costume designer Alice Bristow has been key in helping create a story that audiences can relate to.

“Bristow has found a way to get a humanity into iconic structures,” Bruce said. “There is room for the human beneath. There’s the interaction of the trust, or the despair, or the love, or the betrayal or the hope, and that we can see (in the costumes).”

“These are all people,” Pelto said. “Because these images are from so long ago, and because they are so different from our lives, we have a tendency to forget that people lived lives that were filled with love and anguish and everyday circumstances. That’s what the great gift of opera, and the great gift of a masterpiece like this is: to be able to experience those things again.”

If you go …

What: Utah Opera presenting “Aida”

When: March 12-18, 7:30 p.m., and March 20, 2 p.m.

Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South

How much: $18-$89

Phone: 801-355-2787