Friday, May 18, 2018

Seattle Opera's inventively re-interpreted and gorgeously sung Aida

Verdi’s grand opera, Aida, is so inextricably linked to its ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom setting of towering pharaonic statues and monolithic stone architecture that it takes a strong argument to convince an audience, many of whom will be opera first-timers, that any such departure in time is justifiable. A new co-production from Seattle Opera, having come via San Francisco, Washington National and Minnesota Operas, takes a more contemporary view, inventively re-interpreted by prolific American opera director Francesca Zambello.

Leah Crocetto as Aida and Brian Jagde as Radamès
Here, the Old Kingdom is stripped away and replaced, it appears, by a highly stylised pseudo-1970s context, judging by costume designer Anita Yavich’s colourfully printed kaftans. Or was it WWII-era inspired judging by the handsome military uniforms. Then, there is graffiti artist and artistic designer (born as Marquis Duriel Lewis) RETNA’s bold use of sharply stylised graphic hieroglyphics that etch their exoticism upon the work and which are superbly integrated with Michael Yeargan’s capacious and rigorously symmetrical sets. 

The many and varied stage pictures are striking. From Act 1’s opening cavernous concrete bunker and long trestle table - around which an army of military officers mill about planning war strategies - to the high-screened enclosure and gateway flanked by spectator stands and thrones either side for the grand triumphal march of Act 2 and the final airless tomb that robs Aida and Radamès of life in Act 4, Zambello’s fluidly moving scene changes capture moments both grand and intimate. For this, Mark McCullough’s lighting lends an evocative hand throughout to which revival director E. Loren Meeker, in her Seattle debut, comfortably balances effective detail with vocal delivery.

Leah Crocetto as Aida and cast members of Seattle Opera
As impressive and memorable as it is, a disquieting sense of flux in time and place permeates the work and occasionally distracted the imagination. For a time, in Act 3’s opening scene on the banks of the Nile as prayers are chanted - here the Seattle Opera Chorus shone at their best - it even looked more like Princess Turandot’s China presided as a giant full moon hung low, a processional background of priestesses glided from right to left and a large screen took more the appearance of Chinese characters. But it was inconsistency of style in the choreographed dances that was the biggest detraction, beautiful at times in its streamlined execution, floundering at others in its tweeness. Was I the only one not able to expel from mind an image of The Sound of Music’s Von Trapp family more than once, starting with the cute troupe of boy soldiers that brought liveliness to Amneris’s veiled chamber? In the end, it felt as if other elements that could have dominated - namely the tensions that religious and political rule had created - were compromised.

That’s not to say that the production lacked ongoing dramatic punch, aided by an excellent cast and conductor John Fiore’s command in expressing the tender, triumphant, solemnity and tension of the score with warmth, pliancy and exhilaration. At his service, musicians from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra played with over-all quality to admire.

Brian Jagde as Radamès
Taking the story off to a rock-solid beginning, mammoth-voiced and deep, rumbling bass Daniel Sumegi gave a brilliant, threatening performance as the high priest Ramfis and single-handedly brought out the heavy-handedness of religious authority that I’d hoped to see taken up in greater force around him. Sturdy bass Clayton Brainerd stood authoritatively yet warily in political counterpoint as the King of Egypt and burly bass Gordon Hawkins (alternating in the role with Alfred Walker) brought an imposing voice to Aida’s father Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia, despite looking like an imprisoned janitor in his undignified uniformed greens. In the smaller role of the High Priestess, Marcy Stonikas, without exaggeration, simply touched the senses with her divinely plush soprano. 

But it is the circumstantially fraught love triangle that constitutes the story’s meaty heart where the most tension and complex emotional turns reside. Brian Jagde‘s huge octane-rich tenor fired away from the word go and was put to marvellous use in portraying a highly fervent and eventually punished Radamès. Diction-perfect and phrased with purpose, Jagde (alternating in the role with David Pomeroy) effortlessly made belief of Radamès’ love for Aida and unsavoury road of dishonour. 

Deep, dark and plummy mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic capably steered her portrayal of the King’s daughter Amneris from evil-edged haughtiness to momentary sincerity then maniacal vengeance as her love for Radamès goes unrequited. Nikolic (alternating in the role with Elena Gabouri) had a tendency to lose resonance in the lowest range of the voice but she gave one of the evening’s many highlights in a riveting scene as Amneris curses the priests in Act 3’s hall of the Temple of Justice and tugs at a web of wide drapery as Radamès is sentenced to death. 

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris
Most remarkable, however, was the superbly refined vocal beauty and emotionally compelling performance by luminous soprano Leah Crocetto in the title role as the captured Ethiopian princess, Aida. In love with Radamès, in Crocetto, a sweet sense of purity and courage bonded on a voice in which the high notes were taken to elegantly sustained length, vocal shading impeccably realised and register shifts as smooth as butter. Crocetto, who alternates in the role with Alexandra Lobianco, easily garnered her audience’s sympathy, poignantly encapsulating the aguish Aida sings in “Qui Radamès verra .. O patria mia” (“Oh, my dear country!") and never seemed to tire until her last breath when, entombed, she expires in the arms of Radamès.

Balancing well the spectacular and intimate, there’s much that impresses in Zambello’s Aida. It’s gorgeously sung too and, despite thoughts that more could be achieved in painting its historically updated background and rethinking much of the choreography, this fresh perspective on Egypt’s Old Kingdom allows the plot’s central conflict to fester splendidly.

Seattle Opera 
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at Seattle Center
Until 19th May 2018

Production Photos: Philip Newton

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