February 6, 2012

Lyric captures grandeur of Verdi's 'Aida'

Verdi’s Aida has, for more than a century, held a reputation as the definitive grandiose opera spectacle, fit with camels and elephants (no animals at the Lyric though, only a cast of marvelous human voices).  Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about Aida is its immense range of scale. Both the opening and close of the opera are extremely intimate. Yet in between are the large choruses at the pharaoh’s court (“Su dell Nilo” and “Gloria all Egitto”), in which it seems the entire opera company has been utilized to fill the stage. There are also two extensive ballet sequences, a section of offstage horns and a stage decorated with imitation Egyptian columns. And yet it is the personal, more cerebral solos and duets, such as Aida’s rhapsodic “Ritorna vincitor,” in Act I and the Act II duet for Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano “E’ la sorte dell’armi,” that are the most affecting scenes in the opera. Although the melodies are not Verdi’s best, with the possible exception of the theme in the overture, it is what Verdi does in support of the main vocal line in the orchestra that makes Aida something truly remarkable.

French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette prepared a storyline for Verdi, which is roughly as follows: Radames (Marcello Giordani) captain of the guard, is given command over Egypt’s forces in their war against the invading Ethopians.  Radames becomes the object of the affections of the pharoah’s daugher Amneris (the excellent Jill Grove), but he himself is in love with Aida (Sondra Radvanovsky). Aida is an Ethiopian princess, who, having been taken captive by the Egyptians, now serves as Amneris’ slave girl, whom the Ethiopian invaders have presumably come to liberate. Antonio Ghislanzoni’s versification is perhaps largely responsible for the old cliché that Verdi’s operas have ridiculous libretti.  But the basic plot provides a number of scenarios full of deep, internal human conflict, representing those passions that can be found in every human breast, and which in a sense, unite us all. And they allow Verdi to write some of his most beautiful and colorful music, giving us dramatic moments of great emotive power.

The main strength of this production is in the marvelous voices of Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida, and Marcello Giordani as Radames, both of whom appeared in Lyric’s 2010-2011 season. And one should certainly try to see Aida in the month of Feburary, to experience Ravanovksy and Giordani’s uncommon vocal power before a March change of cast. Radvanovsky’s voice is richer than what we often hear in Italian opera and has a dark-hued, icy quality that is ideal for this role. There is a slight tincture of impurity, but it only serves to augment the emotive quality of Radvanovsky’s voice. Particularly noteworthy is the versatility of Giordani’s voice; in his opening lines, Giordani’s voice is so thick and so powerful in the lower register that we are not totally sure that Radames is a tenor. But Radames’s first aria, “Celeste Aida,” assures us that he is a singer with all the Italianate warmth for which one could hope.

So prominent a place is given to dance in this opera that it is impossible not to mention the fine work of choreographer Kenneth Von Heidecke and an ad-hoc group of dancers, especially in the first Act Ballet at the temple of Vulcan, in which traditional ballet is judiciously fashioned to evoke ancient Egyptian figures, but never so as to appear overly stylized.  While it was certainly a strange choice to have all the Ethopian characters in Aida appear with bluish-tinged skin, as if to avoid the unpleasant spectacle of black skinned- Ethiopian prisoners being led in chains before the much lighter skinned Egyptians, in general, director Matthew Lata gives us a production that is sensibly laid out and has enough spectacle to awe us without upstaging the music.

Aida’s sublime overture will suffer a tad from the first-rate Lyric Opera Orchestra’s tendency to take at least 10 minutes to warm up.  Still, Italian conductor Renato Palumbo makes a strong argument for Verdi’s masterfully coloristic orchestration in Aida and leads a tender, generally very convincing performance.

Opera -goers may grumble at the poor quality of Aida’s libretto; and indeed it is at times so artificially wrought that one is often tempted to turn away from the supertitles and just listen to the music or watch the dancing, depending on the moment in the opera. The great luxury of grand opera as a genre, however, is that one can always divert attention away from any particular aspect of the performance that is underwhelming to focus on the more sublime. This is certainly true in the case of Lyric’s Aida.