Friday, July 19, 2013

In 'Aida,' Cincinnati Opera mounts a spectacle (with depth, too)

Giuseppe Verdi's epic opera Aida has been something of a staple in Cincinnati Opera history, so much so that opening night of the current production on Thursday was the company's 130th performance of the work since its first, 93 years ago this week.

The lavishness of this season-ending production represents the top level of scenery, costumes and lighting likely to be encountered in today's opera houses. Ancient Egypt seemed startlingly present before our eyes, even if stylistic adjustments for the filtering of this story through 19th-century Italian and 21st-century American eyes are inevitable and proper.

Fortunately, the singing on July 18 usually came up to the same level of spectacle and vivid detail. Carlo Rizzi conducted, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit made many excellent contributions in support of the singing, notably in accompanying Aida's first-act bewailing of her plight in love with both her country and its enemy's chief hero.

Latonia Moore had a firm grasp of the requirements of the title role as her character passes from the status of lovelorn slave to an independent woman making canny decisions about her duty to her homeland, Ethiopia, against her commitment to the Egyptian general Radames. The fact that those decisions are inherently tragic does not thwart an exhibition of character development in sopranos with sufficient vocal stamina and a flair for drama. Competing values must be balanced, and Moore gave a thorough demonstration of that difficulty, sounding fully engaged with the assignment.

Her vocal partnering was as firmly focused in the tense third-act argument with her father, the Ethiopian general Amonasro, as it was in every scene in which she appeared with Radames. That role received from Antonello Palombi a perfect incarnation of this Verdi version of a Heldentenor. He even seemed capable (with help from several spectacular outfits) of leading a military campaign in the hands-on manner common in the ancient world.

Dad-daughter rapport: Latonia Moore, Gordon Hawkins
What's more, he displayed a thrilling voice able to project, in addition to overwhelming passion, a tenderness without which Radames can seem merely headstrong. The classic difficulty in one of the opera's few arias, "Celeste Aida," is how to diminish the sound to virtually nothing on the high final note; Palombi did it by turning his head voice into  falsetto at the end, a tactic that might be frowned upon by some but that worked well here because he accomplished it so smoothly.

He was never overpowering in the ensembles, but vigorously at one with his colleagues, starting with the tense trio with Aida and Amneris as the romantic conflict that will govern the action comes out in the open early in the first act. As for Michelle DeYoung's Amneris, her eagerness to have Radames for her own was too obviously signaled from the first. This character's function as a wily schemer was hard to accept, partly because her singing lacked subtlety.

Amneris in this production seemed a little too much a loner, pursuing a selfish course that she realizes all too late is merely destructive. When she murmurs "Pace, pace" at the very end of the opera after  Radames and Aida have succumbed to living entombment below her, it was hard to feel she had much emotional investment in this plea for peace.

Director Bliss Hebert made it pretty clear that Amneris is an isolated figure. It was hard to understand why she wasn't at the King's side during the triumphal scene in Act 2, but on the other side of the stage among her handmaidens and the brooding Aida. Maybe we are supposed to see the Pharaoh's decisions as driven by dynastic concerns alone. At any rate, Gustav Andreassen's King looked almost overwhelmed by his costume, and his shaky voice, along with a tendency to rush, undermined the advantage of his physical elevation in that famous scene. Drawing applause upon the curtain rise for its glitter, imposing set pieces and massive choral forces, the scene enhanced its human display with a restless falcon and, upon the entrance of the Ethiopian prisoners, a couple of horses.
Large-scale spectacle:  Act 2, Scene 2 of Cincinnati Opera's "Aida," with all the principals and many others.

The power behind the throne is clearly the priesthood, dominated by Ramfis, whose portrayal by Morris Robinson was steady, loud, clearly projected and more than suggestive of the composer's personal dislike of powerful clergy, no matter what religious tradition they might represent. Thus conceived, the role, for all its prominence, almost can't help being one-dimensional, but Robinson made it interesting throughout.

Thanks to Gordon Hawkins' inherently dignified portrayal of Amonasro, the father-daughter relationship with Aida was obviously meant to have something essential to it that the King and Amneris woefully lack. The thrills of opera are at least as much about such simpatico pairings as Hawkins and Moore showed in Act 3 as they are about bravura stagings like the second-act finale.

The other role worth mentioning is the off-stage voice of the High Priestess, whose fervent, ethereal quality is required to make the consecration of Radames come across as the serious business it obviously is. The part was wonderfully filled by Alexandra Schoeny, a hometown product who had vital roles to play in all four productions of this company's excellent 2013 season.