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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Verdi's Massive 'Aida' Shines at SF Opera

Posted By on Tue, Sep 28, 2010 at 3:09 PM

Micaela Carosi as Aida - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Micaela Carosi as Aida
Giuseppe Verdi's Aida

@ September 24, 2010
War Memorial Opera House

Better than:

The D-Backs (we hope)

The forthcoming observation about San Francisco Opera's production of Aida is not intended to be dismissive of the backflipping acrobats, the dancers, the endless processions of priests and soldiers, and (especially) the giant blue elephant puppet. As the presence of a giant blue elephant puppet suggests, Aida is an opera of scale. (This may account for S.F. Opera choosing it for Friday's Opera at the Ballpark simulcast.) But what made Friday night's performance come alive -- from an in-house perspective, at least -- were the smaller, quieter moments. Bombast is easy; convincing nuance is not. Balancing the two as effectively as this production did is rarer still.


A successful Aida depends precisely on this balance. Though operagoers may be drawn in by the work's inherent spectacle, it feels empty if the intimate relationships that drive the plot are treated as an afterthought. This is the first stroke of genius in production designer Zandra Rhodes' muchy-ballyhooed sets - they're versatile enough to serve each element well. Thus, the first act's setting for the Egyptian army's rousing departure for war seamlessly transitions to the scene of Aida's aria despairing over her divided loyalties - as the procession departs, a wall moves in from each side of the stage, cutting her off from the throng and leaving her alone with her troubled thoughts. The same device is used to focus on key elements at other points, finally creating a triangular frame around Aida and Radames as they bid life farewell from their shared tomb.

Marcello Giordani as Radames - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Marcello Giordani as Radames
The second brilliant aspect of this production is its near-immunity to historical-accuracy quibbles - as much as the production design drew inspiration from the Egyptian theme, the pervasive aura of fantasy transcended it. The sheer originality of Rhodes' sets and costumes made the events onstage feel as though they could be transpiring (for example) a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (with imaginatively coiffed princesses to boot) - one that just happened to have a few pyramids off yonder. When a designer as original as Rhodes has been enlisted, such an approach only makes sense - and, in this case, her vision pays off brilliantly (though, in a couple of instances, director Jo Davies could have done a better job of positioning various elements on the stage). The costumes, also of course designed by Rhodes, were effective in concept if not always in execution. The priests' pleated gold lame hoop skirts sometimes flipped up and afforded titillating glances of male ankles; and there were unfortunate visual affinities among the Ethiopian prisoners, the cast of Cats, and one notoriously costumed pair of Russian ice dancers.


Populating this vivid milieu were vocalists every bit as compelling as the visuals. In the title role, soprano Micaela Carosi hit a few off notes, but employed her enormously powerful voice to thrilling effect -- particularly through her precise dynamics. Though her acting overrelied on the throw-up-hands-and-emote mode, those same hands poignantly punctuated the ending of "Ritorna vincitor," gracefully falling in sync with the fading music. Dolora Zajick, an unparalleled dramatic mezzo-soprano, got off to a slow start but in the end sang Amneris with her usual bravada. Even if her singing was inconsistent, she nailed the finer points of the Egyptian princess' emotional arc, convincingly progressing from dismissive smirks to disbelieving rage to helpless supplication. As Amneris' control of events diminished, Zajick's command of the stage only grew.

The cast of Aida - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • The cast of Aida
Tenor Marcello Giordani cut a fine figure as Radames -- it was immediately obvious that his first-act rendering of "Celeste Aida" was destined for enthusiastic applause. His voice seemed tired by the start of the third act, but he recovered for a bang-up subterranean farewell with Carosi. Baritone Marco Vratogna, meanwhile, seems to have found a niche with this company -- though motivated by slightly nobler aims, his Amonasro was just as menacing and manipulative as his Iago last season. If his voice occasionally lacked force, particularly in the lowest registers, he more than compensated with the passion of his acting.


Bass Hao Jiang Tian and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn contributed gravitas as the high priest Ramfis and the King of Egypt, respectively. In small roles, Adler Fellows Leah Crocetto and David Lomeli each turned in fine performances (Crocetto without setting foot onstage), and Ian Robertson's chorus had its most memorable outing since last fall's Il Trovatore. The orchestra, with musical director Nicola Luisotti at the helm, wasn't as solid -- it seemed out of sync with performers at times, and sounded oddly subdued during the triumphal march, but found more passion in the final act.


Despite the production's rough edges (the minor costume issues, the awkward blocking in some of the busier scenes, the occasional squeaks as sets moved backstage), I left disinclined to ding it too harshly. Intransigent materials are sometimes going to thunk and snag and otherwise betray their origins as human craft. While these lapses are not desirable, to bemoan them overmuch is to be insufficiently appreciative that opera is work, just as much as it is art. It's not a gift from the gods, bestowed perfectly formed; it's interpretation in an extremely material sense, and -- whatever one thinks of the results -- the management and finessing of workaday problems is precisely why its magic can happen when it does. That this production sees these challenges and goes for broke anyway is the source of both its shortcomings and its triumphs, and, happily, the latter outweigh the former.


Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: In a production rife with sartorial splendor, Best Costume goes to Tian's Ramfis, largely because the orange feline hide draped around his torso could have been a distant ancestor of my ginger tabby. If you've got to be covered in cat hair, that's the way to go.

Random detail: From general manager David Gockley's prologue to the cast taking curtain calls bedecked in Giants swag, nearly everyone involved tonight bought into the Opera at the Ballpark theme wholeheartedly. I'll wager that very few audiences have been treated to the sight of the lead soprano bouncing onstage for her final bows in a team cap and T-shirt, brandishing a giant orange finger. (Vratogna and Tian were quite taken with their foam prostheses, too.) It was a sight not to be missed, which brings me to:

Special note to the couple in orchestra row C, seats 122 and 124: Scurrying for the exit before Zajick's final note ends and the curtain -- let alone the lights -- go down? When you're three rows back from the stage? Really? I'd suggest that you stick to the ballpark for future performances, where (as Gockley acknowledged) a looser standard of etiquette prevails, but I hesitate to inflict the likes of you on a blameless stadium. Let me guess, you also bail during the seventh-inning stretch ("to beat the traffic") and -- if there's any justice -- have thereby missed catchers stealing home and pitchers hitting walk-off grand slams.

(Much as I'd like to give fleet-footed operagoers the benefit of the doubt and assume they've just been informed their puppy is dying, this happens far too often for that to universally be the case.)

By the way: Remaining performances of Aida are Sept. 29 and Oct. 2 and 6. The production continues in November and December with a different cast and conductor. Performances run approximately 2 hours and 55 minutes, including one intermission. Sung in Italian, with English supertitles. Admission is $20-$320; call 864-3330 or visit www.sfopera.com for more information.

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Emily Hilligoss

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