Review: Team Verdi – San Diego Opera’s Praiseworthy “Aida”, April 23, 2008

San Diego Opera once again dispelled the myth that insufficient numbers of opera singers are available to cast the mature works of Giuseppe Verdi, by assembling a cast for “Aida” worthy of any opera house.  With so many of the familiar late 20th century Verdian opera performers no longing performing (at least not the Verdi roles), the cast selected by San Diego Opera General Director Ian Campbell will include names not known to every Verdi enthusiast.

[Below: Indra Thomas as Aida; edited image, based on Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

However, as a Verdian veteran who has seen a significant majority of the major Verdian singers of the past five decades in performance, I was very pleased at the uniform quality of the six principals in San Diego. I will offer some stellar names from past times that I have seen perform the major “Aida” roles to match or exceed each of the San Diego performers, but I don’t think I could name a cast that I have seen where all six as a group exceeded the quality of the San Diego team.

We can think of the Aida Six as really two triads – one (Aida, Radames and Amneris) whose personal interactions dominate the action and who share much of the greatest music of the opera, the other triad (a power group indeed consisting of The King of Egypt, King Amonasro of Ethiopia and the Egyptian High Priest Ramfis) as important secondary roles, requiring big voices.  The latter two roles have enough to do that “name” stars can sometimes be coaxed to sing them, especially if a recording or DVD is a part of the assignment.

One seeks Verdian voices where one can find them these days, and I believe it significant that the major triad came from diverse communities over three continents. The title role was taken by Atlanta’s Indra Thomas, yet another dramatic soprano whose vocal abilities were first discovered in the Sunday services of African American churches.  (Significantly, Mark Rucker, who played her father Amonasro in this performance, himself was a product of Chicago’s African American churches.)

This was her debut at San Diego Opera and my first occasion to hear her.Her voice has the right weight for the juicy Verdi roles such as Amelia in “Ballo in Maschera”, Elizabeth in “Don Carlos” and the Leonoras in “Il Trovatore” and “La Forza del Destino”, all of which she performs.  Her voice has a sweetness at the top and power throughout her range.

Her rival Amneris was performed by the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano, Mariana Pentcheva, whom I had previously seen at the San Diego Opera as Ortrud in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in 2000, and who has also appeared there as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma” and Eboli and Verdi’s “Don Carlo”.  She too has the requisite power throughout her range as well as the dramatic abilities to display all of the emotions that a great Amneris must portray.

[Below: Mariana Pentcheva as Amneris; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograpy, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Their mutual love interest, Radames, was played by Carlo Ventre, the Uruguayan tenor, who has begun to assay the tenore di forza roles.  I was familiar with him as a creditable Gabriele Adorno in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” in 2001 at San Francisco Opera, and I found his dark, baritonal sound to be effective for this classic Verdian role that must project both machismo and angst.

For a half century we have been accustomed to Verdian voices trained in African American churches and in recent decades to the treasure troves of singers whose childhoods were spent in the former Soviet bloc of nations.  But what an amazing amount of operatic talent now hails from the continent of South America, which, of course, has had two centuries of operatic tradition, but which seems now to be exporting major singers to Northern Hemisphere climes at a rate beyond anything that has occurred previously.

[Below: Radames (Carlo Ventre, left) caresses Aida (Indra Thomas); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The remaining principal cast members included the Ramfis of Reinhard Hagen (whom this website has already praised during San Diego Opera’s 2008 season for his Landgrave in Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and Talbot in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda”).  He has proven an incomparably versatile artist, demonstrating skill as a Wagnerian, as a performer of Italian bel canto, and in Verdi’s heavier vocal lines written for a basso profondo.

Mark Rucker was a spirited Amonasro, and Brazilian Jose Gallisa (King of Egypt), who up until now has sung French roles at San Diego Opera (Nourabad in Bizet’s “Pecheurs de Perles” and the High Priest in Saint Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”) proved adept in the Italian repertory also.

The role of the priestess, whose offstage voice is heard, but who does not appear, was sung by Priti Gandhi, representing the Asian subcontinent in this international cast.  A favorite in the comprimaria roles in San Diego, I had heard her as Inez in the 2007 San Diego “Il Trovatore”, and in the much more important assignment of Mallika in Delibes’ “Lakme” in February 2008 at the Tulsa Opera.

Major companies cast promising singers in the offstage Priestess role that helps establish the exotic mood of the opera.  I myself have experienced the voices of Carol Vaness and Dolora Zajick as the Priestess in San Francisco (obviously early in their careers). San Diego Opera’s performance history lists Aprile Millo singing the part in 1978.

On the website, I have referred to San Diego as a Verdi-friendly city, in that its opera company has never permitted the kinds of sacrilegious “Jack the Ripper” concept director productions of Verdian works that have appeared in other U. S. and world cities.   (2007’s “Il Trovatore”, using the 1998 Los Angeles Opera/Washington National Opera co-production, had sets by Belgium’s Benoit Dugardyn that contained some surreal elements, but none that did violence to the “Trovatore” storyline.)

One can come to depend on the maintenance of high production values in Verdi performances in San Diego, particularly in a company-owned production, such as its “Aida”, first mounted in 1996 and repeated in 2001.  The production was conceived for San Diego Opera (and built by the Opera’s awesome set construction team) by Yale University’s dramatic wizard, Michael Yeargan.

[Below: Michael Yeargan’s sets for Act II Scene II of “Aida”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Professor Yeargan is a master at developing unit sets that are visually effective, while minimizing the time and effort required for scenery changes. San Diego’s Campbell (in a sentiment echoed now in San Francisco by David Gockley) is a proponent of faster scene changes and fewer intermissions, so as to maximize the operatic experience and minimize the amount of time that a performance takes.

“Aida” is the most popular opera in the French “grand opera” tradition in which lavish scenery, pageantry, and a ballet is mandatory.  It also shares with Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” and Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” the distinction that the ballets are so integral to the story (or in the case “Gioconda” to the audience’s expectations) that the opera cannot be performed without a troupe of dancers, as well as all the principal singers, chorus, orchestra and coterie of extras. These requirements would appear to put the opera out of the reach of some regional companies. In fact, San Diego Opera has proved fearless when it comes to producing the work, and in demonstrating that “Aida” need not be reserved to only the most resource-endowed of opera companies.

How many ballet dancers do you need for a grand opera like “Aida”?  San Diego Opera provides 16, eight of each sex, choreographed by Kenneth von Heidecke, and, to my taste, it worked out just fine.  Similarly, the great triumphal scene had sufficient choristers (performing well under the direction of Timothy Todd Simmons) and extras to provide a visually satisfactory grand opera experience.  Peter J. Hall, whose costumes have graced many an “Aida” performance throughout the world, designed those worn here, which are owned the Dallas Opera.

Yeargan employs a unit set, but one with some complexity, utilizing a raked stage with movable floor panels.  Scenes are framed by white roof and side panels, ornamented by colorful wall paintings, hieroglyphics and cartouches, that signify Ancient Egypt, and can be moved forward and backward to create or enhance the different scenes, which are supplemented by structures unique to that scene and often special lighting also.  For the second scene in the temple, for example, large figures of Egyptian gods appear at the sides of the stage, while the back of the stage is lit in yellows and oranges.Areas for the large chorus and groups of extras to stand and sit for the Triumphal Scene are moved into place when needed. For the Trial of Radames, the floor boards are pulled back to permit the priests to be seen descending to a lower level. For the Nile Scene, doorways of different buildings appear at stage right and stage left.  It is twilight on the Nile, with silhouetted papyrus plants and palm trees.  In time, a starry tropical night descends.

The tomb scene does not incorporate the traditional split stage (Aida and Radames below sealed in the tomb with Amneris on the outside above), but has the doomed lovers towards the front of the stage with Yeargan’s side panels pushed towards the center.  Although we hear Amneris’ voice, the backstage is dark until the final moments when the backstage is lit to show Amneris lying prostrate and the feet of the large statue of the goddess to whom she is praying.

“Aida” is an opera that is consistent with the ideas for operatic reform associated with Wagner. Whenever Aida, Amneris or Radames speak to one another, you get the sense that the character to whomever he or she is speaking has no idea what the other person’s reaction will be.  With each line of their conversation in the libretto, each character is learning something new, and their guess as to what the other character is thinking (and what they themselves intend to do) changes with that newly acquired information.  For example, Radames apparently assumes that Aida will continue to be his lover after his marriage to Amneris.  In the Nile scene, Aida is not sure whether Radames will go through the marriage, but is determined that she will not share him with Amneris.  As the two begin to discuss their future, we can see how psychologically destructive for Radames is Aida’s position on their relationship and her insistence that he flee with her. Verdi provides all that is needed for the scene to work. Garnett Bruce, the stage director, clearly acknowledging that Verdi knows best, supported Verdi’s vision throughout almost all of the opera.  (A stage director can show his stuff with the Judgment Scene,  as Bruce and Pentcheva, his Amneris did, in which Verdi permits the unleashing of the princess’ fury and emotional distress.)

Valery Ryvkin, who had been an impressive conductor of 2007’s San Diego Opera production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” showed that his conductor skills are much broader than the Russian repertory. Ryvkin is also General Director of the Charlotte and Santa Barbara opera companies.  (Tom’s commentary on Ryvkin’s 2008 Santa Barbara Opera season will be posted soon.)

The audience began its final ovation with many standing as Pentcheva took her bows, with more standing as Ventre arrived.  By the time Thomas stepped to the footlights, the entire audience was on its feet, with Ryvkin enthusiastically applauded as well.

The San Diego Opera, with a five opera season each year, balances the most popular works with lesser known endeavors, and so it may be a while before they consider Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”, which tends to be offered by only the largest companies.  However, one notes that were they to secure the return of the stars of this production (Thomas, Pentcheva, Ventre, Rucker and Hagen), that they have proven by this “Aida” that they need only augment their ballet by a few more dancers, and enlist a contralto (Ewa Podles has appeared at the San Diego Opera not that long ago), to mount a world class production of the challenging Ponchielli work.

One of the eccentricities of this website is the convention that I provide an account of the 50th anniversary of  my “first time” experiences of each major opera, and that I seek to find a contemporary presentation of that same opera (obviously one that I could feasibly schedule) to attend.  In the 50 years since my first “Aida” (when the San Francisco Opera toured San Diego in 1957) I have managed to see many of  the great singers of the day in the major roles.  (All of those listed are associated with San Francisco Opera performances.)

My most memorable Aida was Leontyne Price in 1963 (relatively early in her operatic career) and in 1984, when she was  still in good voice but retiring some of her roles. Others of note included Dame Gwyneth Jones (1969), Eva Marton (1977) and Margaret Price (1981).  I was impressed by two little known singers from the Eastern bloc,  Ljiljiana Molnar-Talajic (1969) and Marina Krilovici (1972), liked Michelle Crider (2001), and, for historic interest, appreciated seeing Herva Nelli (1957).I have been fortunate to see the Amnerises of Blanche Thebom (1957), Regina Resnik (1963), Irina Arkhipova (1969), Fiorenza Cossotto (1977), Tatiana Troyanos (1977) and Larissa Diadkova (2001), and enjoyed Stefania Toczyska (1981) as well.  Additionally, I saw Pentcheva’s fellow Bulgarian, Margarita Lilova, perform the role creditably with two different casts (1969).

The most exciting performance as Radames was that of Luciano Pavarotti (1981), the last of several world role debuts in productions mounted for him by San Francisco Opera’s General Director Kurt Herbert Adler (recorded for posterity on DVD).  However the Radameses of Sandor Konya (1963), Jon Vickers (1969), James McCracken (1977) and Franco Bonisolli (1984) were treasured, and those of Guy Chauvet (1969) and Richard Margison (2001) appreciated.

Ingvar Wixell (1977), Simon Estes (1981) and Juan Pons (1984) were my pre-eminent Amonasros; Nicola Moscona (1957), and Bonaldo Giaiotti (1977) more than ordinary Ramfises; and Kevin Langan (1981 and 1984) and Raymond Aceto (2001) notable Kings of Egypt.  But as I noted earlier, there was no performance with as well-rounded a cast as that seen in San Diego on this 50th anniversary of my first “Aida”.  (For those who subscribe to the disappearance of Verdian voices theory, those preponderance of names in the 1957-1984 period might seem to be significant.)

I have been treated to high calibre conducting, with that of Gianandrea Gavazzeni (both 1972 casts) the most memorable, but Francesco Molinari-Pradelli (1957 and 1963), Jesus Lopez-Cobos (1972), Edo de Waart (1984) and Patrick Summers (2001) deserve special praise also.For the discussion of the 50 year anniversary of my first performance of “Aida”, by the San Francisco Opera Company at San Diego’s Fox Theatre, see the May, 2007 archives of this website.