Saturday, September 11, 2010

Elephants at Aida

I saw a very enjoyable performance of Aida here in San Francisco earlier this evening. It of course is the opera most performed by the Met and the "A" opera of the Aida-Boheme-Carmen A-B-Cs, but to me, every production of Verdi's Egyptian fantasy is an experience. First, it's the only real grand opera in the standard repertory--the others that fit that label are relatively rarely performed, such as Meyerbeer's L'Africaine or Les Huguenots. Second, most of the opera moves smoothly from melody to melody, in the finest Verdi tradition. Third, singers can sound good without making you think they are the best you ever heard in the role. As it happens I heard and saw Leontyne Price in the title role, and Corelli and I think Domingo as Radames.

The baritone, Marco Vratogna, was a good Amonasro, but I'm a sucker for good Verdi baritones, even though I did see Leonard Warren onstage in his prime, and not the night he died (for real) on the Met stage. This Italian baritone has sung at a lot of major places, like La Fenice, Scala, and Vienna, and yes, for the Opera Company of Philadelphia, but not yet at the Met or Washington. I'm not sure what they're waiting for--he has a beautiful tone.

I've not yet mentioned the highlight of the evening, however, which was Zandra Rhodes's costumes and sets. They were almost extreme--or as my friend Noah put it, "very San Francisco." Lots of turquoise and interesting non-geometric shapes and a wonderful "repesentation" of an elephant during the triumphal march. Did you know that in the 30s, the Met used to bring in elephants from the zoo for the march. My mother said she was in the audience once when they did that.

The production was directed by a British director, Jo Davies, who also had a few tricks up her sleeve. She ran the march in fits and starts--a switch from the steady progression in most productions where sometimes the small complement of extras moves so fast that you see them coming around a second or third time. And at one point, she has the King and Amneris facing the back of the stage from the front so everyone else approaches their review facing front. I said that the Aida, Micaela Carosi, and the Radames, Marcello Giordani, were excellent, but although her voice was all right, I couldn't get over regarding Dolores Zajick, the well-traveled Amneris, as a top-like looking figure in her massive headgear and short stature. She was hard to take seriously and that apparently mattered a lot to Verdi, who was once quoted as saying that the Amneris role is key to the whole opera. The priests all wore conical skirts or cassocks or whatever but she was the one you felt like spinning.

Not that I'm taking on the Maestro of Maestros, but I beg to differ. She moves around the stage a lot but has no great singing to do. Even the King--a classic comprimaro role--has more, I think. Some friends of my family used to know a Met comprimaro named Edmund Karlsrud whose biggest role there was the King in Aida, and he made a big deal about being a Met regular. A Chinese bass sang the role of Ramfis, the High Priest, and he was quite good, nice strong sound.

Carosi and Vratogna--Aida and her father, Amonasro--were convincing in those always difficult Verdian father-daughter duos--such as Rigoletto and Gilda. Their Nile Scene duet wasn't as stirring as the one that ends Act 3 (or more often, it's done as Act 2 these days) of Rigoletto, which may be my favorite duet in opera (the classic recording has Sutherland and Sherrill Milnes). I wasn't surprised to learn that with Davies and Rhodes putting it together, the production debuted at the English National Opera in London and then was at Houston, where the San Fran general director, David Gockley, previously ran things.

This was opening night and since your reporter nabbed what seemed (online) to be the last seat in the lovely War Memorial Opera House, I didn't bring my black tie, of which there were plenty in attendance, even a few white ties. San Francisco is that kind of place. I never went to the Met on Monday nights, which was once society night. In Washington, Monday is the opposite, with an early curtain for those who needed to get home sooner to care for their families. There were also a lot of private parties and the inevitable white stretch limos waiting outside on Van Ness Avenue across from City Hall. And the nice lady sitting next to me way upstairs struck up a conversation by saying how much she liked the figurative elephant. I couldn't have agreed more, and said so.

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