By Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti
Directed by Jo Davies
Costumes and production design by Zandra Rhodes
San Francisco Opera
Sept. 10-Oct. 6, 2010
(See video preview below.)
Dolora Zajick (left) as Amneris and
Micaela Carosi as the titular princess in
San Francisco Opera’s “Aida”
Photo by Cory Weaver
Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” puts the “grand” in “grand opera.” Pomp and spectacle, exoticism, romance and revenge: it does them all on a huge scale. And, of all the “Aidas,” past and present, the one at San Francisco Opera has to be among the grandest, thanks to a fine cast and crisp direction – yes – but largely due to eccentric British fashion and textile designer Zandra Rhodes, who created both the costumes and the sets. Without detracting from the music or plot, they are magnificent, almost beyond description although you’d better believe I’m going to try. San Francisco is the third city to see this production, which is shared with Houston and the English National Opera in London.
“Aida,” written in celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1871, is both colossal in scale and intimate in emotion. Radames (Marcello Giordani), the leader of the Egyptian army in ancient days, is in love with the captured Ethiopian slave Aida (Micaela Carosi in a stunning San Francisco Opera debut), really a princess in disguise. He, in turn, is loved by Amneris (the fabulous Dolora Zajick who just simply owns this role), daughter of the Pharaoh. This love triangle, neatly echoed by the endless pyramid shapes of Rhodes’ moving panel curtain design, is sumptuously set up in the first half of the opera, which takes place in temples, palace chambers and the courtyard of the spectacular Triumphal Scene. That scene, with Ian Robertson’s superb chorus and what seems like hordes of supernumeraries, waving silken banners and those famous Verdi trumpets (he designed them himself) right onstage is beyond thrilling. Shimmering in Rhodes’ hieroglyphed fabrics of orange, blue and (lots of) gold, this is a feast for both eye and ear. So, who needs elephants? Spoiler alert: one does show up but not as you might expect.
The second half, which resolves the conflict, is smaller, more personal, although, in Rhodes’ conception, no less lovely to behold. On the eve of his wedding to the Pharaoh’s daughter, Radames arranges to meet Aida on the banks of the Nile. Pressured by her father, Amonasro, king of the Ethiopians who has been captured in battle, Aida tricks her lover into revealing the Egyptian battle plan. They are discovered by Amneris and the priests who have been doing some pre-nuptial praying in the temple nearby. This is the true emotional heart of the opera; the music of this scene some of the finest in this – or any – opera and the principals do it proud. but, as fine as all the voices are, Marco Vratogna’s Amonasro steals the show.
The next scene also is intimate. Radames, awaiting trial for treason, is summoned by Amneris who begs him to defend himself. She will plead for his release but only if he promises to give up Aida, who has escaped into the desert. He refuses, they quarrel and he is taken into the temple where the voices of the priests rise up to announce his doom. He is to be buried alive beneath the altar of the god. Aida steals into the tomb to die with him and, as they sing their final duet (“O terra, addio”), those triangular panels close claustrophobically in upon them leaving the grief-stricken Amneris outside.
Giordani and Carosi are both good-looking enough to be believable lovers. He grabbed me in his opening “Celeste Aida” and didn’t let go until that final duet. And, if Radames seemed a little dim-witted in the tradition of operatic heroes (think Siegfried) that’s not his fault. Carosi has great stage presence as she demonstrated in her two long scenas, “Numi pieta” and “O patria mia” as well as a beautiful voice. She is a real find. Zajick did her usual yeoman service and Vratogna was simply sensational. Christian Van Horn was a tall, imposing Pharaoh but Hao Jiang Tian was disappointing as the High Priest. Dancers Chiharu Shibata and Damon Mahoney executed Lawrence Pech’s delightful choreography well. Lighting design, by Christopher Maravich, worked hand-in-hand with the stagecraft of Rhodes to create some truly magical pictures.
One quibble. Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco’s new music director, is a fine conductor but, here, his tempi often were inexplicably fast and the orchestra tended to be too loud. Such fine singing doesn’t deserve to be drowned out.