When it comes to the category “grand opera,” there are few “grander” than the Aïda by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). With great official events such as Act I, Scene I, the Priests’ selection of a war leader or Scene II, the parading of forces in the triumph, major opera houses with deep pockets can swamp the human drama with spectacle. While Opera Carolina‘s Belk Theater audience may not have seen phalanx after phalanx of costumed extras or half an ark of the animal kingdom, they did get a fine abstract of such pomp to season the taut focus on the human drama devised by music director James Meena and stage director Trevore Ross. There were no serious weaknesses from either the stage or the pit during the riveting opening night production.

Grand opera is nothing without great singing and Opera Carolina’s leading cast was remarkably even and strong. All displayed fine diction and focused intonation. At the performance Postlude, tenor Antonio Nagore said this was his seventh production in which he had sung the role of the heroic warrior Radamès. His timbre was individual and pleasing with ringing highs and more than enough power to soar over the orchestra. He said a singer’s whole body is his instrument and that the singing of the words had to settle into his whole being, not just the voice. His gestures and vocal coloration helped portray the conflicts between his private love and his duty to his state.

When I reviewed the 2001 Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut for CVNC, dramatic soprano Susan Patterson was outstanding in the title role. Since then she has racked up an impressive resume in the Met, La Scala, San Francisco, Chicago Lyric, and other opera houses. Her warm and clearly focused voice easily cut through or soared above the orchestra or the full stage ensemble while, its power reined in, conveying Aïda’s most intimate emotions. Her dramatic fencing with the jealous and crafty Pharaoh’s daughter was a model of operatic acting as she is almost tricked into betraying her secret identity as the daughter of the Ethiopian king. Her tender duets with Radamès were moving. This was first-rate mature Verdi singing.

If a production has a weak singer in the role of either of the lovers, a solid mezzo-soprano can easily steal the show as the Pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris. This character has the widest range of emotions and the most dramatic personal growth, beginning as an entitled and jealous lover, becoming a vengeful, wronged lover, and ending transcending her personal loss to plead for Radamès’ life and mourning his cruel death. Elena Bocharova brought an almost contralto-like lower range and fiery temperament that packed quite an impact. She was terrific. Charlotte opera lovers were lucky to have such a strong cast of lovers as a dramatic counter-balance.

The low leading male voices made a dark, full contrast. Bass Myron Myers brought plenty of gravitas and sepulchral depth to the role of stern high priest Ramfis. Bass Sean Cooper embodied unfettered majesty as the King or Pharaoh of Egypt and the proud father of Amneris. Baritone Gaëtan Laperrière sang the role of Aïda’s father, Amonasro with unusual and welcome warmth. His portrayal was less one dimensional than is often the case.

One of my favorite scenes in the opera is Act I, Scene 2, the ceremonial selection of Radamès, with the chants of priests and priestesses, harps, and the magical off-stage intoning of “Immenso Fthà!” sung by the High Priestess. Soprano Amy Van Looy was very effective in this role. The brief role of the Messenger was taken by Noah Rice.

The members of the Charlotte Symphony played on the edges of their seats, responding to Meena’s refined dynamic and expressive demands. It was a great night for refined string playing as the violins wove some ethereal filigree for Verdi’s most intimate moments. Rich, full lower string tone supported more passionate moments. The delicate violins under pp flutes conjured up a tropical moonlit night to open Act III. The brass sections were often brilliant while the horns played intimate scenes with great subtly. The triumphal scene featured fiery flourishes from three imposing straight trumpets widely spaced onstage and in lockstep with those in the pit.

The Opera Carolina Chorus may not have been huge but they sang with splendid projection and unanimity. Their diction was superb. Had the house lights been up, their words could have been readily followed in an Italian libretto. They often functioned as one or more characters such as in the triumphal scene when the low men were the vengeful priesthood and much of the rest were the common people pleading for mercy for the Ethiopian captives. Members of the Gethsemane AME Zion Church Concert Choir helped to fill out the choral forces.

Several episodes using from two to nine dancers, were ingeniously choreographed by Martha Connerton. Evocative gestures were derived from images of ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. The costumes were provided by A. T. Jones & Sons, Ltd and designed by John Lehmeyer. The fine textures and bright, rich colors were very satisfying.

The basic monumental unit set, provided by New Orleans Opera and designed by Phil Silver, was easily modified by quick re-positioning and the adding of drop cloths. Its drab physical appearance was magically transformed by the imaginative and refined lighting design by Michael Baumgarten. An original touch by the Charlotte staff was the addition of a glowing full moon to the night scene by the Nile that opens Act III. The suggestion of moonlight on rippling water was enchanting.

W. C. Fields hated working with children or animals because of their ability to steal a scene. Audiences feel differently. During the triumphal march, Opera Carolina may not have had a Barnum & Bailey Circus parade but onlookers warmed to the company’s petting zoo. A placid dromedary camel led the procession that included a large-horned watusi (a breed of cattle native to Africa) followed by an anxious zebra. A sweet-tempered donkey was followed by a majestic white horse with an elaborately coiffed tail, pulling Radamès in a chariot.

After the performance, our Aïda, Susan Patterson, said it looked like the zebra saw her as a kindred spirit and was about to come up and introduce himself to her!