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Subject: SF Opera "Aida"
From: Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 6 Nov 2016 18:59:10 -0800
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For as popular as it is, I think “Aida” is the opera one is least likely to see in a truly great performance that does justice to the work.  When that happens, it transcends traditional opera and becomes something magical and even mystical, but that is so rare.  The parts, vocal and instrumental, are so difficult that singers and players have their hands full just getting the right notes out, but getting the notes out is only the beginning in conveying both the grandeur and the subtlety and range of color that are in the score.  

It really takes great singers who are also great actors.  Aida herself not only has to have a beautiful voice of exceptionally clear and pure intonation, but she has to have significant power as well as ability to shade dynamics at the very top of her range and produce an exceptional range of colors.  She should also look beautiful, in order to make Radames’ “Celeste Aida” credible and there should be something both regal and captivatingly mysterious about her that explains both his passion for her and willingness to give up his country (big deal for such an ambitious guy) as well as to provoke such deeply bitter jealousy from Amneris.

After sustained singing. often with powerful dramatics and often in the high register, Verdi really asks the impossible by wanting Aida and Radames to be in faultless control of intonation and dynamics in that almost Tristanesque tomb scene.

Amneris is also a demanding, multi-faceted role who needs to excite both fear and empathy and Verdi gives her what might be the most magnificent scene of all for mezzo soprano in the final act.  Again, she needs to pour out power, volume, intensity and high notes but she should be able to caress the Act 2 repeated “Ah, vieni amor” like a violin.

So we accept that we’ll almost always get serious compromises.

San Francisco Opera presented a production directed by Francesca Zambello with sets by Michael Yeargan that tried to avoid the Cecil B. Demille Egyptiana by setting most of the opera in grey concrete barrack-type settings with the men in modern dress military uniforms and the women, well hard to tell because many Middle Eastern women’s outfits still look pretty much like they probably did a couple hundred years ago.

One innovation didn’t work for me.  In the Judgement Scene, we had an open window to the actual goings-on with black ribbon-like cloths tied around Radames as the priests were pulling him about and trying to torture responses out of him.  Two problems I found with this:  it took way to much attention away from Amneris’ big scene and forced her to unfairly compete with too much activity and it also deprived the tenor of the rest that Verdi clearly calculated in before he had to sing the Tomb Scene.

Nicola Luisotti can be a great conductor.  I was disappointed last night: beautiful fluid execution of the higher and more delicate parts and plenty of pizzazz for the Triumphal Scene, but peculiar and unexpected broadening of tempi deprived some of the most powerful scenes (Aida/Amonasro, Radames/Amneris, Amneris/Priests) of the power and force they should have.

For Radames we had a big, beefy tenor with an incredibly handsome baby face and a clear, bright voice with definite dark undertones and power, Brian Jagde.  He had a tendency to put too much pressure into it (the danger these extremely muscular types can have) which made the sound powerful but impeded flow and ultimate resonance as well as beauty.  For those of you with long memories, think back to young Jess Thomas.  His acting consisted of doing the right poses and expressions at the right time, but nothing particularly deep or individual.  No attempt at a diminuendo on the “Celeste Aida” B-flat (but a good forte note), nor (more troublesome to me) any attempt to sing it softly in the Tomb Scene.  That said, a clear, strong, competent performance and great eye candy.

Semenchuk was a very natural Amneris who was sympathetic and attractive.  She sang the softer, legato sections very well, including that “Ah, vieni amor” that I’ve heard a few powerhouse Amnerises make a mess of.  I was disappointed with her big moments in that she didn’t have the power and volume I’d expected from her.  Also, her sound seems now more lean and sopranoish than when I’ve heard her before (maybe a result of her forages into Lady Macbeth and such).  Nevertheless, a major opera house performance.

I have trouble watching Gagnidze (Amonasro).  He looks to me too much like a kindly grandpa trying to act scary.  He goes bug eyed at high notes, which rarely have much real projective force to them.  I did, however, like Aceto’s powerful buzz-saw voice and regal demeanor as Ramfis.

So we come to Aida.  Difficult assessment.  Leah Crocetto has the ability to lock into  a soaring resonance in her upper octave that produces beautiful and powerful sounds that hover in the air after she’s released them.  That leads you to expect better execution of things like a piano B-flat or any kind of C than we get:  the piano B-flat turns shaky and either has to be cut short or swelled out.  The high C is certainly there but thinner and peakier around the edges than ideal.  The famous one in “O patria mia” was attacked full voice in a very ungainly manner.  But, picky, picky, she sang the part overall well enough and with enough beauty and suavity of phrase as to seriously earn respect.

But, good Lord, she’s a disaster on stage.  She’s not only short and extremely rotund, but she worsens that by bearing the demeanor and  movements of a frightened four year old girl.  She spends 90% of the opera with the same pouty look on her face.  Even with a bias toward the voice and music, this just wasn’t acceptable.  Not only now, it wouldn’t have been acceptable 50 years ago.

So, kudos for competent work in an opera that makes mere competence a serious challenge, but not an overwhelming experience and not “the” experience that “Aida” can be.

Max Paley
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