Verdi’s, “Aida” at Seattle Opera is a powerful must-see.

Through its love triangle of the captive Ethiopian princess Aida, the Egyptian military commander Radamés and the Egyptian princess Amneris, “Aida” explores what it means to be torn between love and loyalty to your country and family. Verdi and librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni wrote the opera on a commission to celebrate the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Egypt. Still, the Italian composer couldn’t help himself, and his opera sides with its title character, poking at Egypt’s imperialistic bent.

Created in collaboration with three other opera companies, this production cannily utilizes sets and costuming to firmly plant Verdi’s 19th-century opera in today’s world with nods to its original setting of ancient Egypt.

Designer Michael Yeargan’s towering scenic framework is emblazoned with renowned street artist RETNA’s stylish graffiti, a mashup that includes Egyptian hieroglyphics and other ancient lettering. Grey concrete walls and overhead fluorescent lights are counterpointed by RETNA’s bold shapes and colors and complemented by Mark McCullough’s lighting design.

Anita Yavich’s uniforms feel very contemporary — just look at current photos of the Egyptian military. Her priests harken back to early Egypt with a touch of modernity, and the floating caftans worn by the Egyptian women in private have an exotic, luxurious quality.

While this is basically a French grand opera, Francesca Zambello, the original stage director, and E. Loren Meeker, the stage director for Seattle Opera’s production, did not let the spectacle steamroll “Aida’s” human story. Apart from a couple of briefly awkward staging bits, they got the balance of the opera’s grand moments and its intimate ones just right, so we care about the characters and their troubles.

Jessica Lang’s choreography, with staging by Claudia McDonald, sidestepped the oft-experienced sense that the dance is an awkward divertissement written into the opera simply because it was an expectation of that time. Instead, Lang heightened the reverence and mystery of the Act 1 temple scene and the militarism of the Act 2 victory scene.

On opening night last Saturday, soprano Leah Crocetto as Aida poured her emotions into her glorious legato, from Aida’s most fragile and quiet moment to her fiercest. Crocetto was particularly moving in the aria, “Oh, patria mia.”

As the jealous Amneris, mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic displayed lush color in her dusky voice and was every inch the arrogant princess.

With a voice as smooth and rich as warm caramel sauce, tenor Brian Jagde had the vocal strength for Radamés’ big scenes such as the victory scene or his entrapment by Aida and her father in an act of treachery, as well as the subtlety and control for his tender and lovely duets with Aida.

Baritone Gordon Hawkins was a commanding Amonasro, convincing as a king who could galvanize his people to fight the Egyptians.

Daniel Sumegi as the priest Ramfis, Clayton Brainerd as the Egyptian King, Eric Neuville as the Messenger and Marcy Stonikas as the High Priestess all provided fine support.

Conductor John Fiore and his orchestra were masters of “Aida’s” huge variance in volume from a fine-spun soft phrase to a rousing military march, as was the nuanced chorus.

Verdi undoubtedly would have appreciated that I felt both uncomfortable with the opera’s aggressive, overwhelming nationalism and pain for Aida, Radamés and Amneris’ predicaments. And kudos to the cast, musicians and production team for taking me there — and, of course, for the magnificent music.

Seattle Opera’s “Aida” plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St.), through Saturday, May 19. Prices $49-241. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call 206-389-7676 or visit

MAGGIE LARRICK is a freelancer writer who lives in the Seattle area.