Review: An Admirable “Aida”: Hui He, Berti, Smirnova, Kelsey Are Impressive – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 15, 2012

The Lyric Opera of Chicago, which owns Nicolas Joel’s classic 1983 production (created for Luciano Pavarotti) of Verdi’s “Aida” revived it for the first time in eight years for a “February” and a “March” cast. The latter was the occasion for the first Chicago performances by the Chinese soprano Hui He in the title role and the Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova as Amneris. Artists returning to the Lyric stage were Italian tenor Marco Berti as Radames and Hawai’ian baritone Quinn Kelsey (an alumnus of the Chicago Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center) as Amonasro.

Hui He, Berti, Smirnova and Kelsey proved to be a powerful quartet of spinto artists, possessing the required vocal heft to perform these four demanding roles. Hui He’s Aida was a vocal triumph, displaying the full range of emotion in this conflicted character, particularly memorable in the Nile Scene. (There is an urban legend alleging that a critic wrote that a certain soprano sang the Nile scene so coldly that the “Nile froze over”. Though that supposed review is a fairy tale, listening to Hui He’s passionate Nile Scene, I began to wonder if the Lyric’s Nile was beginning to simmer.)

[Below: Aida (Hui He, right) is counseled by her father, Amonasro (Quinn Kelsey, left); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Marco Berti, already one of the finest of the current generation of Italian tenors performing in the United States, was also outstanding. He is a superb Verdi tenor, an invaluable asset to opera companies in a period when there are doubters as to whether great Verdi singers exist.  [See my reviews of his Gabriele Adorno and Manrico at Hvorostovsky, Guryakova, Berti Excel in Houston “Simon Boccanegra” – November 4, 2006 and Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009.] Berti sang Radames’ challenging aria Celeste Aida (calling on his vocal skills within the first few notes of his first scene) with poise and beauty.

Smirnova was a large-voiced Amneris, playing a character who is a powerful presence in every scene in which she appeaars.  A great Amneris will dominate the the Judgment Scene, and Smirnova did just that.

Quinn Kelsey’s emergence as a Verdian of the first rank has been chronicled here before (see my review at Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.) His Amonasro was full-voiced, his sonorous baritone delivered seemingly effortlessly.

[Below: Radames (Marco Berti, left) is quizzed by Amneris (Anna Smirnova, right); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Nicolas Joel’s Production

Some of the most beautiful operatic productions that have survived since the late 20th century are the exotic creations of Nicolas Joel, presently the General Director of the Opera National de Paris.

Learning much of his craft from the great French production designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, among the American monuments to Joel’s creativity is this production of “Aida” as well as Lyric Opera’s 1998 production of Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles” [for my review, see Eyecatching, Mellifluous “Pearl Fishers” at Lyric Opera – October 16, 2008]. Pet Halmen designed “Aida’s” sets and costumes.

For the current revival the stage director was Matthew Lata. In an opera, which, despite its reputation for spectacle, is basically comprised of a series of highly charged conversations between the characters, most of the staging was logically developed. (The blocking of Radames, Ramfis, Amonasro and Aida as a foursome standing side by side at the end of the triumphal scene, although perhaps helpful in balancing voices, seemed, however, dramatically implausible.)

Kenneth von Heidecke was choreographer, creating always interesting and often lustrous dances. Jason Brown was lighting designer.

[Below: dancers in the temple scene; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Many of the brilliant productions of the 1970s and 1980s were built to last for decades, and Lyric Opera’s “Aida” sets retain their exotic feel. As noted elsewhere on this website, the surviving examples of the great advances in operatic production design that is represented in the massive sets of Nicolas Joel and others is being lost to the ravages of time.

Often the losses are the result of  the temptation (or dire  necessity) of opera companies to slash budgets for storage of sets and costumes, and, in an example or two, of the animosity of a general director towards a production designer she or he simply didn’t like.

Lyric Opera has fortunately kept this production safe for nearly three decades. This is another of the productions that I believe should be considered “world treasures” with the larger operatic community encouraging their safekeeping from damage and destruction.

[Below: Ramfis (here, Raymond Aceto, left) prays for the support of the gods for the military success of Radames (here, Marcello Giordani, left); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

The  famous triumphal scene (the two quartets of “Aida trumpeters” housed in square enclaves in the massive back walls) was impressively mounted, the King of Egypt and daughter Amneris carried in chairs from point to point to get each moment’s best view of the ceremonies. The triumphal scene’s march, chorus and ballet dances constitute the most famous pageantry in all of opera, and Lyric’s production has all of the excitement one expects of a world-class, grand opera production.

[Below: the King of Egypt (Evan Boyer, facing the gates to the rear) awaits the triumphal march of Egypt’s victorious armies; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

The Nile Scene is particularly captivating, with images of a lush oasis with towering palms and a large boat that sails from one shore to one of Ramfis’ massive temples.

In this cast, the creditable Slovenian basso Stefan Kocan was Ramfis. Ryan Opera Center artists Bernard Holcomb effective as a messenger, and Cecelia Hall as a Priestess. Renato Palumbo, the conductor, gave special attention to the orchestral phrasing of Verdi’s  luminous overture, and elicited beautiful sounds from Lyric Opera’s Orchestra.

For those able to get to the remaining performances in the current Lyric Opera run, I recommend them highly. What one receives for their ticket is a first rank Verdian cast in a worthy production that every opera goer should experience in live performance.

For my reviews of other performances by Marco Berti, see:  A Second Look: Luisotti Improvises in “Turandot” Game Delay, then Hits a Grand Slam – San Francisco Opera, September 25, 2011, and also,

Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011, and also,

Halevy Triumphs in Ponnelle “Carmen” – S. F. December 3, 2006.

For my reviews of other productions by Nicolas Joel, see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part II: Gheorghiu and “Rondine” – November 25, 2007, and also,

Exotic Immersion: “Samson” in S. F. – September 11, 2007.