Is this a news account of an ill-fated love story amid the Arab Spring? No, it is a new production of “Verdi’s “Aida” set in present-day Egypt at this year’s Glimmerglass Festival here in bucolic Cooperstown.
Directed by Francesca Zambello, now in her second season as the festival’s general and artistic director, this topical take on the opera has been generating hot debate since it opened last month. During a performance on Saturday night — except for the last two scenes, in which Ms. Zambello, who tends to go too far with her concepts, did so again — I found this grim, updated “Aida” exciting and provocative.
This summer Ms. Zambello has chosen works that speak “to contemporary political and social issues,” as she puts it in a news release. As themes go, this one is admittedly generalized. Still, three of the four main stage productions, which I saw over the weekend, grapple head-on with issues of longstanding religious and sectarian conflict, especially “Aida,” a story of love between enemies: Radames, a heroic warrior in ancient Egypt, and a captive Ethiopian princess, Aida.
There were also Lully’s “Armide,” which tells of a Muslim princess and sorceress who falls for a Christian crusader, and Kurt Weill’s musical “Lost in the Stars,” an adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” about the struggles of a black priest in South Africa as the system of apartheid takes root in 1949.
How “The Music Man,” Meredith Willson’s enduring tale of a vivacious charlatan who poses as a boys’ band organizer and changes the lives of the gullible townspeople of River City, Iowa, fits in is harder to see. For Ms. Zambello, the show speaks to values of community. But never mind.
The “Aida” production makes gripping use of a set designed by Lee Savage depicting the once palatial headquarters of the Egyptian soldiers. The claustrophobic atmosphere introduces an element of ever-present danger to the intimate scenes that dominate the opera: you never know when another bomb might go off.
Because issues of race figure strongly in three of this season’s offerings, Ms. Zambello assembled a diverse company. Of the 39 performers in the young artist program this summer, 19 are minorities, Ms. Zambello said.
There are moments when the contemporary imagery is stunning and poignant. In the libretto the second scene takes place within a temple where the Egyptians pray to their gods for success in fighting the Ethiopians. Here the Egyptian soldiers, with rifles slung over their arms, take out Muslim prayer mats and beautifully sing Verdi’s chanted choruses in hushed, reverential tones, sensitively conducted by Nader Abbassi (an Egyptian musician who has led the Cairo Opera). The clash of weapons and prayers gets to the maddening issues that still unfold in that war-torn region.
But in the last act, when Radames is waterboarded, the production goes awry. The image is shocking and pertinent. But the priests who grill Radames are not trying to uncover more information, just giving him a chance to defend himself. In the libretto Radames is punished by being sealed alive in a tomb, where, in the final moments of the opera, he discovers Aida hidden: she has chosen to join him in death.
There is not an obvious contemporary equivalent. Ms. Zambello has Radames strapped to a table and given lethal injections. Aida sneaks into the chamber and injects herself. This solution, if not ruinous, is not quite right.
With its 900-seat theater, Glimmerglass has been a place for young artists to take on major roles that would require big, mature voices in a full-size house. The soprano Michelle Johnson mostly fared well as Aida. A lovely, vivid actress with a rich, penetrating voice, she threw herself into this touchstone role, though there were moments when her singing sounded strained.