Review: Latonia Moore, Jill Grove Outstanding in the Zandra Rhodes Mounting of “Aida” – San Diego Opera, April 20, 2013

An extraordinary performance of Aida by soprano Latonia Moore and a strong showing as Amneris by American mezzo-soprano Jill Grove were among the highlights of a warmly received San Diego Opera performance of Verdi’s “Aida”.

The Houston Grand Opera’s sets were used.  Designed by San Diego’s local celebrity artist Zandra Rhodes, her zany, color-drenched artwork evokes the psychedelic hippie era of the late 1960s and 1970s, in which she reigned as a queen of London’s Carnaby Street fashion houses. [For further thoughts on Zandra Rhodes’ contributions to opera and pop culture, see my review of this production’s appearance in the city associated with 1967’s “Summer of Love” – Brilliant Cast, Colorful Production, Luisotti’s Masterful Conducting Enliven San Francisco “Aida” – September 19, 2010.]

Rhodes’ 21st century career renaissance has been opera set design, most memorably the San Diego Opera production of Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers”, which has much to do with the new-found popularity of this exotic French opera.

Latonia Moore’s Aida

The headline for this performance review appropriately cites the Aida of Texas soprano Latonia Moore, who showed not only the voice of astonishing power on which her emerging international reputation is based, but also of  lyrical beauty.

This is one of the great operatic diva roles, highlighted by three  famous arias, all of which mix melodramatic intensity with soft, introspective melodies which, when sung as Verdi intended, float through the opera house. Moore demonstrated to San Diegans why she has claim to the small circle of truly great Aidas.

[Below: Latonia Moore as Aida; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Jill Grove’s Amneris

I had remarked on Jill Grove’s success in another Verdi role requiring both vocal power and strength in the lower register [See Louisiana Locale, Impressive Casting for Paul Groves’ First “Ballo” – New Orleans Opera, November 18, 2011]. Amneris is a much longer role, and Grove proved her mettle in a riveting vocal performance.

All of the plot motivations in the opera are the result of the ambitions of Amneris (or of her rival’s father, Amonasro). A character who constantly overplays her hand, and who helps destroy the man she had intended to possess, Amneris is one of greatest operatic roles.

Grove’s excellence in this role foretells an important addition to this generation’s inner circle of great Verdi voices.

[Below: Jill Grove as Amneris; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Mark S. Doss’ Amonasro

Also vocally (and visually) impressive was American bass-baritone Mark S. Doss, who exhibited the physical acting skills so often associated with American-trained artists. [For my review of his Mephistopheles, see: Santa Fe Opera Gets Gounod At Last: Hymel, Perez Soar in Spectacular New Production of “Faust” – July 1, 2011.]

Yet another indelible portrait by Doss, he presented the image of a king with the wiles and the charisma to indeed lead a troublesome uprising against the superior Egyptian forces.

[Below: Mark S. Doss as Amonasro; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Walter Fraccaro’s Radames

If Moore made an astonishing first impression as Aida, my first impression of Walter Fraccaro’s Radames was of a tentative and unfocused tenor voice, perhaps nervousness at a company debut in a large opera house, perhaps a result of husbanding resources to survive this long and often treacherous role.

Fraccaro was at his best in the Judgment and Tomb scenes that end the opera, and was rewarded with a sizable ovation, with considerable numbers of the audience standing at the end (soon to be a unanimous standing ovation when Latonia Moore took her first bow of the evening.)

[Below: Zandra Rhodes’ sets for the triumphal scene with Radames (Walter Fraccaro, center) holding a symbol of victory; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Other Cast Members

The San Diego Opera, despite only 16 performances a season at present, has, over the years, developed a core “company” of singers many of whom alternate principal with  comprimario roles. This was in evidence in the casting of German basso Reinard Hagen as Ramfis, Egyptian basso Ashraf Sawailam as the King of Egypt and Priti Gandhi as the Priestess. Enlisting Greg Fedderly’s large tenor voice as the Messenger is yet another example of an opera company assigning a principal artist to  this role that sings only a few words.

Zandra Rhodes’ Sets and Costumes

The Rhodes’ sets for “Pearlfishers” provided a historic lift to the American fortunes of Bizet’s youthful opera [see my reviews at A new look for Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”: Zandra Rhodes in San Diego & S. F and Castronovo, Siurina Lead Magical San Diego Opera “Pearl Fishers” – May 9, 2008)]

In fact, there are other exotic operas in the less-often performed French repertory, as well as several fairy-tale based Russian operas that I believe Ms Rhodes could populate with stunning sets and costumes, opening cherishable music to new audiences.

Of course,”Aida”, a stalwart of the Italian repertory, does not need Rhodes’ whimsies to enhance its popularity. An unceasing parade of Verdian melodies, some well-known beyond the circles of opera, and tightly focused dramatic action assure that it will always be in the first rank of opera masterpieces.

But this is the Verdi Bicentennial Festival Year, as well as the 30th year celebration of San Diego Opera’s respected general director, Ian Campbell, so that a mounting of Houston’s Rhodes Show, honoring the San Diego celebrity that Campbell encouraged to take on operatic production, proved to be a popular and timely repertory choice.

[Below: San Diego Opera choristers in the Zandra Rhodes costumes for the priests; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Andrew Sinclair’s Stage Direction

Another artist, Australian born like Campbell, with a long list of San Diego Opera credits, is Andrew Sinclair. One always depends upon his brilliantly conceived stage direction.

I have noted before Sinclair’s resourceful integration of dance into his stage direction. “Aida”, a quintessential French grand opera (even if it is in Italian) abounds in pageantry and dance. Unlike most grand operas, there is no tradition that would permit cutting out the ballet sequences in performing “Aida”.

UtilizIng San Diego Opera’s sixteen-person ballet troupe and the inspired choreography of Kenneth von Heidecke, Sinclair introduced the eight women of the ballet in the temple scene, the eight men for the scene in Amneris’ apartments, and both groups together for the triumphal scene.

[Below: Male dancers in Amneris’ apartments; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


In fact, dance replaced much of the procession of the Triumphal Scene, with, I think, a good result. The choristers, led by chorus master Charles F. Prestinari, were massed intelligently.

The processional highlight was designed to be Radames’ entrance on a puppeteer-driven blue elephant, that did seem to win the audience’s favor.

[Below: Female dancers in the Temple of Phtah; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


(I have remarked before that the San Diego Opera really does show that classical grand opera can be produced outside of the world’s few large urban area opera houses. The cast assembled for “Aida” together with the 16 member ballet troupe, I suspect without great difficulty, could perform Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”, often considered the most ambitious grand opera to hold a place in the standard repertory.)

The orchestra was conducted by Daniele Callegari, like Grove and Fraccaro, making his San Diego Opera debut. Chris Maravich was the Lighting Designer, assuring that Rhodes’ bright colors would be properly lit.


I recommend the San Diego Opera performances of “Aida” without reservation, to both the veteran and novice opera goer.