Print this Article
By Bernard Jacobson
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.
Verdi, Aida: Seattle Opera, soloists, cond. Riccardo Frizza, dir. Robin Guarino, set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Peter J. Hall, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, choreographer Donald Byrd, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Seattle, 2 and 3.8. 2008 (BJ)
How many opera-lovers, I wonder, can harbor even a faint suspicion that what they routinely hear at the end of Radamès’s “Celeste Aida” bears little resemblance to the way Verdi imagined the passage? “Pianissimo, morendo” (“very soft, dying away”) is the marking on the final high B-flat. Aware that he was asking a lot of his lead tenor, Verdi also provided a less taxing alternative, which brings the voice down an octave.
Almost everyone I have ever heard sing the role either takes that easier option, or belts out the high B-flat without any respect for the composer’s instructions. Not since the days of Carlo Bergonzi had anyone essayed a truly soft high conclusion in my hearing–till the opening night of the Seattle Opera season, which handily disposed of the fashionable notion that a “golden age of singing” can be located only in the past. Antonello Palombi had me momentarily worried, for, after starting the note quietly, he swelled it to a moderate mezzo forte, but then he fined it down to the most exquisitely floated pp, and held the audience spellbound with a long moment of rapt visual and aural stillness.
Palombi has a rich and beautiful voice, a touch baritonal in timbre, with only a slightly pinched tone on loud high notes still in need of refinement. He sings with consistent sensitivity and warmth, and he acts passionately and well. Nor was the Aida of the evening, Lisa Daltirus, any less riveting. As she showed in the company’s Tosca just three months ago, she is a singer capable of the highest vocal and dramatic flights. She is gorgeous to look at, every inch both prima donna and princess; her voice is perfectly produced, ranging from the most voluminous yet mellow fortissimo to the softest yet still cleanly projected whisper, and even throughout the range; and her acting compels attention and sympathy in equal measure. I have no doubt she will be thrilling audiences for decades to come.
The company’s tight performance schedule compels it to offer alternating casts, since singers of long and demanding roles cannot be expected to perform twice within 24 hours. It is customary to refer to these as respectively the “gold” and the “silver” cast. But, though it’s true that the biggest names tend to be concentrated in the “gold” list, any suggestion that “silver” means “inferior” must be resisted, because general director Speight Jenkins, now in his 25th season at the head of this splendid company, is a perfectionist, and no man to compromise on quality.
Last year, to take a striking example, in her US debut as the “silver” Giulio Cesare in Handel’s opera, the English mezzo Anna Burford easily outshone her more famous “gold” counterpart, Ewa PodleÑ, on whom all the pre-production publicity had been centered. And this time around, the “silver” Amonasro, Richard Paul Fink, outclassed Charles Taylor’s nominally “gold” performance. I had originally assumed that Taylor’s constant fidgeting around, totally inappropriate in a character who is supposed to dominate the stage from the moment he enters, could be laid to the director’s charge. But if that was an accurate suspicion, Fink is all the more to be admired for having resisted any such requirement. He may lack the histrionic intensity of a Tito Gobbi in the role, or the sheer charisma of a Gregg Baker (Philadelphia’s majestic Amonasro of a few seasons ago), but he stood commendably still, captured much of the Ethiopian king’s innate dignity, and sang superbly.
It was interesting to observe how vocal differences between the two casts affected the impression made even by the singers who appeared in both. On opening night, I thought Joseph Rawley’s King of Egypt, though well sung and stately enough of mien, a shade lacking in sonority. But in the Sunday matinee, with the “gold” Ramfis of Luiz-Ottavio Faria replaced by the “silver” Carsten Wittmoser, the vocal balance came out more even: Rawley sounded much better this time (though I should add that he was probably singing more confidently anyway). That judgement should not be taken in as any way negative in regard to Wittmoser: I thought both Ramfises (or is it Ramfes?) excellent; it was simply that Wittmoser’s voice is less sumptuous but at the same time perhaps more focused and incisive than Faria’s, so that Rawley, when his moment came, sounded more appropriately in scale.
The other double castings were, as you would expect, of Radamès, Amneris, and Aida herself, and in these instances there was much to enjoy in both casts. Give the Australian tenor Rosario La Spina a difficult quiet note to sing, and he will attempt to subdue it by main force–his lusty yell at the end of “Celeste Aida” was no match for Palombi’s subtlety–but the voice is itself a good one, not yet as freely produced as his colleague’s, but with a top that is a tad better integrated with the lower registers at loud dynamic levels. As Amneris, Margaret Jane Wray had to contend on Sunday with the inevitable acclaim for local favorite Stephanie Blythe’s vivid and arresting performance the night before, but she acquitted herself splendidly, and even surpassed her predecessor with the freedom and glitter of her upper notes, though she cannot rival Blythe’s rich bottom register. And though the young Venezuelan soprano Ana Lucrecia Garcia (a product, I am told, of the El Sistema education program that is currently the talk of the music world) is a much less experienced performer than Daltirus, and cannot lay claim to either the American’s allure or her ability to thrill with a phrase, her voice is lovely, and her acting grew steadily more communicative in the course of the afternoon.
You may have detected, in my comment on Charles Taylor’s stage deportment, a certain negative feeling about the director of the production. I had better come right out with it, and straightforwardly declare that Robin Guarino is not my kind of director. Her cavalier treatment of that Giulio Cesare in 2007 appalled me. Presented on imposing but somewhat unmagical sets originally designed by Michael Yeargan for the San Diego Opera and in Peter Hall’s mostly attractive Dallas Opera costumes, her Aida was, I must say, not nearly as bad. Many moments were effective and even moving. But once again she allowed the same choreographer, Donald Byrd, to fashion dances utterly inappropriate in their aggressively spasmodic arm-jerking and sleazy hip-writhings.
Not only that, but Ms. Guarino’s decision to present the famous Triumphal March not as a dance at all, but as a merely the opening segment of the ballet that properly should follow it, seemed to me a characteristic example of the director-knows-better-than-the-composer attitude prevalent in many quarters these days. Verdi could have written a dance at this point if he had wanted to, but he wrote a march. Splendid as it sounded under the baton of Riccardo Frizza, who was making an impressive company debut, the dramatic relevance of the procession was thrown wantonly out of the window.
This may not, then, be a perfect production (perfect opera productions being, in any case, something I have experienced only about three or four times in 60 years of opera-going), and I thought both the set and the lighting for the final scene came nowhere near the heartbreak of the action. But the staging was at least dignified and serious–those awful dances aside–and you will not in a month of Sundays hear better singing on any opera stage in the world than Daltirus, Palombi, and their colleagues gave us in this resplendent Aida.
Print this Article