Silver or gold: Both Seattle Opera "Aida" casts shine brightly
A review of Seattle Opera's "Aida," performed at McCaw Hall; review by Bernard Jacobson.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Aida"Verdi's opera in Seattle Opera production, with Riccardo Frizza conducting and staging by Robin Guarino, continues Aug. 23, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center; $25-172 (206-389-7676, 800-426-1619 or www.seattleopera.org).
Opera review | "Gold Cast"
Sixteen years after it was last seen and heard here, Verdi's "Aida" returned to the Seattle Opera stage on Saturday in a production of spectacular musical quality.
The first sign that we were in for something special came, significantly, with a moment of rapt quietude. The last note of Radamès' aria "Celeste Aida" is usually belted out with scant regard for Verdi's instruction to sing it pianissimo, morendo -- "very softly, dying away." But on this auspicious opening night of the 2008-09 season, Antonello Palombi, surpassing even what he achieved as Canio in January's "Pagliacci," melted the heart with a ravishingly floated B-flat. It was a happy foretaste of the dramatic commitment and almost unfailingly glorious tone this Radamès offered throughout the evening.
And then we were treated to an Aida, in Lisa Daltirus (last season's stunning Tosca), of equal quality. Not only did she look and act like the princess she was playing, but her voice was equal to every demand Verdi made on it -- from the most vehement to the most delicate. Especially impressive were the moments when she launched a high note of beautiful power and then refined it down to a no less perfectly placed and projected whisper.
Stephanie Blythe, the Amneris in this opening-night cast, sang as sumptuously as ever and realized every facet of the opera's most complex role. Luiz-Ottavio Faria and Priti Gandhi provided worthy support as Ramfis and the High Priestess; Joseph Rawley was a dignified if slightly less sonorous King; and Karl Marx Reyes' delivery of the terrified Messenger's tidings offered a telling vignette.
With Beth Kirchhoff's chorus as splendid as ever, the only disappointment among the singers on stage was the Amonasro of Charles Taylor. This was perhaps not his fault: In contrast to the handsome costumes of the others, Peter J. Hall has inflicted a sort of aging-hippie outfit on Taylor, and the director, Robin Guarino, had him hopping sporadically about -- quite unlike the majestic figure who is supposed to dominate from the moment of his first appearance. You can't dominate the stage if you can't stand still.
The production as a whole, on Michael Yeargan's fairly imposing if unmagical sets, was not the travesty Guarino inflicted on "Giulio Cesare" last season. There were many convincing and indeed moving moments, but others disappointed -- like the visual reduction of Verdi's famous Triumphal March, musically thrilling under the sure hand of conductor Riccardo Frizza but distractingly choreographed by Donald Byrd into a segment of the ballet that follows it.
Verdi could have composed a dance here, but he composed a march. Departures from the clear directions in the score are acceptable when they tell us something new and illuminating about the work -- or about ourselves, or about the state of the world. This idea merely told us that the director thinks she knows better than Verdi. And the last scene, too brightly lit, took us nowhere near the heartbreak of the action.
Yet such was the splendor of the evening's singing that this long-awaited "Aida" must be accounted a triumph.
Opera Review | "Silver Cast"
A tight performance schedule compels Seattle Opera to offer alternating rosters of singers, which is customary to call a "gold cast" and a "silver cast." But any implication that the latter is second rate must be resisted, because general director Speight Jenkins is not a man to compromise on quality in either lineup.
In Sunday's "silver cast," there was one distinct improvement: in the role of Amonasro. Richard Paul Fink may not rival the histrionic intensity of the great Italian baritone Tito Gobbi, or the charisma of Gregg Baker (Philadelphia's admired and majestic Amonasro), but he commanded the stage better than the opening-night cast's Charles Taylor. Fink stood still instead of fidgeting constantly, realizing much more of the dignity attached to the Ethiopian king, and he sang superbly.
I found both Ramfises (or would that be Ramfes?) excellent. On Sunday, Carsten Wittmoser deployed a voice less voluminous than his predecessor's, but perhaps more focused and incisive. Wittmoser's counterpart, Joseph Rawley, who plays the King of Egypt in both casts, sounded appreciably more resonant than he had on opening night. As Amneris, too, Margaret Jane Wray, particularly impressive in the upper register, showed herself fully able to face comparison with the formidable Stephanie Blythe of the opening-night cast.
Lisa Daltirus' Aida and Antonello Palombi's Radamès were hard acts to follow, but both Ana Lucrecia García and Rosario La Spina demonstrated ample virtues of their own. García, the less experienced of the two Aidas, may lack Daltirus' allure and her ability to thrill with a phrase, but she has a lovely voice, and her acting grew more communicative as the matinee performance progressed. La Spina tends to tackle difficult notes with aggression rather than subtlety — his uninhibited top B-flat at the end of "Celeste Aida" was an example — but if his voice is as yet less free and warm than Palombi's, it is admirably consistent in tone from top to bottom.
Altogether this "Aida" is a delight in both its versions.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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