San Diego Opera’s Aida: a Feast for the Senses

San Diego Opera closed its hugely successful 2013 season with a production of Verdi’s perennial masterpiece that was both stirring and captivating to watch. The performance marked the welcome return of fashion icon Zandra Rhodes and also the much-anticipated SDO debut of young American soprano Latonia Moore in the title role. Ms. Rhodes’s eye-catching costumes and set designs captured the audience’s imagination, and Ms. Moore’s silky soprano earned their immense admiration.

Ever since its Egyptian premiere in 1871, coincidentally the same year as Wagner’s Lohengrin opened in Bologna, Aida’s massive worldwide success has been legendary. The opera was commissioned in 1869 by the Khedive of Egypt, a devoted arts patron, for the inauguration of his Théâtre de lÔpéra in Cairo; but the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war caused a delay in shipping the sets and costumes from Paris to Cairo and the opening took place the following month. Verdi, prone to seasickness, and also miffed that the first performance had been barred to members of the general public, did not attend the premiere and instead thought of the 1872 La Scala debut as the first official performance. Aida then played all over Europe, landed in Argentina in 1873, premiered at New York City’s Academy of Music and at the Met In 1886. Since then this monumental Egyptian tale of passion, jealousy and hunger for power, has become the Met’s second most frequently performed opera after La Bohème.

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Soprano Latonia Moore is Aida in San Diego Opera’s AIDA, April 2013. Photo © Ken Howard.

Last evening Ms. Moore was the bright light. Already celebrated as a world-class artist since her relatively recent opera debut, she counts the Met, Covent Garden and Hamburgische Staatsoper among her operatic conquests. As the ill-fated Ethiopian princess, she carried the burden of a role taxing in its tessitura and weight with seeming ease. Her exquisite artistry in phrasing and lyric beauty of her voice evoked the shimmering stars of an Egyptian night. Vocally she was like a fine, fresh Beaujolais wine with “notes” of Leontyne Price and Leona Mitchell, her lustrous turns of phrase reminiscent of the young Renée  Fleming. The audience’s warm reception and uninhibited standing ovation were almost a given for this rising operatic force of nature.

Italian tenor Walter Fraccaro’s powerful Radames showed he was up to the strenuous task of playing the noble hero. Having sung Radames all over Europe, Fraccaro’s SDO debut in the role still felt fresh and vigorous. His sturdy voice ably cut through the thick orchestration, yet showed subtle variations in color and timbre when needed.

Also in her SDO debut, Jill Grove provided a menacing Amneris and perfect foil for the vulnerable slave. Rather than go for sheer vocal beauty, Ms. Grove made the most of her lush lower to mid range to exude power and mercilessness.

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Tenor Walter Fraccaro is Radames and bass Reinhard Hagen is Ramfis in San Diego Opera’s AIDA, April 2013. Photo © Ken Howard.

American bass-baritone Mark S. Doss was a robust Amonasro. Seen here in multiple roles since his 1992 debut in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, he has expanded both his repertoire and list of companies with which he has appeared to include Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala and other European houses, as well as Chicago and San Francisco in the US. His voice, dark and appropriately woolly in the low range and brighter at the top, adeptly portrayed both the rage and the tenderness of a conflicted Ethiopian leader trying to cope with his daughter’s suffering.

Supporting roles were well cast. Reinhard Hagen, a Met Opera Sarastro and familiar to SDO audiences for his multiple bass roles in the German and Italian repertoire, was a forceful Ramfis. Egyptian bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam, appropriately cast here as the Egyptian King, has matured impressively since his SDO debut in Salome last season. Vocally imposing as the Third Tempter in last month’s Murder In The Cathedral, he was equally striking in his consistency throughout the challenging range of low to high notes in his current role. One hopes to see more of him in future productions. Tenor Greg Fedderly, known here for roles in Peter Grimes, Samson and Delilah and Murder in the Cathedral, projected with effective passion in the often-underappreciated role of the Messenger. Priti Gandhi’s sparkling soprano as the High Priestess was, as always, a pleasure to hear.

A veteran of his native repertoire, Italian conductor Daniele Callegari’s impressive list of performance venues includes the top opera companies and orchestras in the world. In his SDO debut, he exuded an authority and expertise reflective of his vast experience. Though some of his quick tempi made the orchestra and dancers scramble in a few instances, the small discrepancies between pit and stage did not significantly detract from the overall excellence of the maestro’s skillful rendering.

(L-R) Mezzo soprano Jill Grove is Amneris, tenor Greg Fedderly (kneeling) is the Messenger, bass baritone Ashraf Sewailam is the King of Egypt and bass Reinhard Hagen is Ramfis in San Diego Opera's AIDA, April 2013. Photo © Ken Howard.
(L-R) Mezzo soprano Jill Grove is Amneris, tenor Greg Fedderly (kneeling) is the Messenger, bass baritone Ashraf Sewailam is the King of Egypt and bass Reinhard Hagen is Ramfis in San Diego Opera’s AIDA, April 2013. Photo © Ken Howard.

Australian director Andrew Sinclair returns this season having pleased SDO audiences in former seasons with his debut in Lohengrin, and subsequent work in Aida and The Pearl Fishers. He has appeared with numerous companies worldwide, including New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, Covent Garden and Bayreuth, and was Principal Resident Director of Opera Australia. In this production he supervised the enormous spectacle efficiently, keeping the numerous scenes seamlessly flowing into each other with ease and integrating the symbolic backdrop with believable action from the characters.

Zandra Rhodes has received much praise for her work at SDO designing costumes for Mozart’s The Magic Flute and sets and costumes for Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. This stunningly designed Aida, first mounted for Houston Grand Opera and also seen in London and San Francisco, marks the first time San Diego audiences have witnessed her brilliance on such a large scale. As the libretto does not stipulate a given time period, Ms. Rhodes was free to forgo the authenticity of original French designers Rubé, Chaperon, Despléchin and Lavastre’s neutral desert settings, and the relatively subdued colors of Auguste Mariette’s original costumes, for timeless, vivid hues that reflect the wall paintings inside the pyramids. The result is a riot of color and texture against a glowing backdrop filled with dramatic Egyptian symbolism: all told, a veritable feast for the eyes. Judging from their rapturous reaction, those in attendance heartily approved of her vision. I even overheard one audience member express a desire to take the charming stylized elephant home with her.

Chris Maravich’s lighting design complemented Ms. Rhodes’s sets and costumes attractively. The subtle lighting of the temple scenes contrasted effectively with the harsh glare illuminating Aida’s anguish. Kenneth von Heidecke adroitly handled the difficult task of choreographing the vast amounts of ballet in this work. The male dancers earned special kudos for going the extra mile throughout the evening; their portrayal of the  decadence of Amneris’ chamber scene as Boy Toys who also danced, leapt and tumbled, was a clever touch, and expertly executed.

Verdi’s Aida, always a favorite, was a fitting close to an opera season that undoubtedly will entice San Diego operagoers to come back for more. While we all await next season’s stellar lineup with eager anticipation, I have clear advice to those who did not attend last night’s extraordinary production.

Don’t miss it.