Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tomb With A View

After traveling to Egypt last spring, I find myself examining performances of Aida from a rather skewed perspective. Having explored the tombs of dead Pharaohs, it's become curious to see how various set and costume designers attempt to create an Egyptian "ambience" for the operatic stage. And, having attended enough performances of Verdi's opera over the past two decades to know a great evening of music-making from a mediocre re-hash of the score, I must confess that an extraordinary percentage of the Aida performances I now attend are dangerously out of balance.

How come? Once the blush of excitement surrounding a new production of Aida wears off, too many revivals stink from the kind of uninspired blocking which means that an assistant director's assistant has been handed the production's prompt book and told to get everyone moving across the stage on cue in a minimum of rehearsal time. With international soloists flying in and out of town at a fairly rapid clip, what may once have seemed like the ideal vocal ensemble which could do justice to Verdi's score (essentially a chamber opera about four people's conflicting emotions) quickly deteriorates into a slipshod affair as the principals honk their way through each performance without any concern for delivering a cohesive artistic product.

Under the severe strain of poor direction and lackadaisical ensembles, two performances of Aida collapsed like lead balloons last fall. Although spear carriers crossed the stage with monotonously clinical precision (and the scenery was awesome enough for audiences to applaud on cue), something was dangerously absent from the proceedings. That something was the heart and soul of one of Verdi's greatest operas.

So here's the $64,000 question: Is Aida really impossible to cast these days? Or are opera companies cutting their own throats by asking the scenery to sing Verdi's music when the lead performers cannot?


Last fall, I was present in the Metropolitan Opera House at one of the performances in which Alessandra Marc sang the role of Verdi's Ethiopian princess. Having heard the oversized soprano perform in several opera houses, I was familiar with the heft of the voice, its relative strengths, and its obvious weaknesses. Once one staggers through all the hype being built around Marc's appearances, there is no escaping the fact that she's not much of an actress, has very little support for the lower voice and (other than possessing a strong top register) is a rather dull performer.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding Miss Marc's Met debut, I was less than impressed with her Aida, which was about as passionate as the pyramid standing behind her. I'm already beginning to wonder if, five years from now, people will be asking "Whatever became of Alessandra Marc?" Sad, but true.

The rest of the cast was equally disappointing. Nicola Martinucci's Radames was a stock Italian tenor, complete with semaphore gestures and bellowed high notes. As Amneris, Stefania Toczyska demonstrated a continuing lack of involvement in her role, walking through the opera as if her primary concern were to pick up a paycheck. Juan Pons's Amonasro barked and blustered a lot but did little to make Verdi's music catch on fire.

Although Paata Burchuladze's dark and resonantly sung Ramfis was appealing, not even Christian Badea's conducting could lift the evening out of its basic lethargy. Sonja Frisell's stage direction (which looked tired when the production was new last year) seemed, at best, applicable to the traffic patterns at school crossings. What I found so perverse about this performance is that none of the principals ever looked at each other. Instead, all of their attention (and emotional energy) seemed to be directed at the prompter's box.

As usual, the audience went ga-ga when the Met's stage elevator went to work and I'd venture to say that this highly-acclaimed piece of hydraulic machinery gave the most exciting performance of the evening.


Back in the Bay area, the San Francisco Opera revived Douglas Schmidt's "Verdi Goes to Las Vegas" production of Aida with a monotony that defied belief. Most of this was due to Cal Stewart Kellogg's plodding tempos, which made one wonder if the conductor was on heavy downers. Making her American debut in the title role, soprano Sharon Sweet (who is almost as large as Alessandra Marc) displayed a healthy-sized voice with the capacity to get through "O Patria Mia" in robust form. Unfortunately, Sweet's attempts to bring any sense of drama to the role were minimal and, under Bruce Donnell's lame and uninspired direction, she did not offer a convincing characterization of Verdi's love-torn Ethiopian princess. Of the principals, only Timothy Noble (as Aida's father, Amonasro) seemed to have the slightest idea of why he was appearing onstage. The Triumphal March was a model of operatic insipidity.

Thankfully, former Merola graduate Dolora Zajick returned to town as Aida's rival, Amneris (a role which is becoming the meat and potatoes of her repertoire). While Zajick brings true vocal fireworks to the role of the haughty Egyptian princess, she, too, is not much of an actress. It often seems as if, when placed in a dramatic situation that is either competitive or not catching fire, Zajick pushes the "loud" button in her technique as a means of compensating for the circumstances (a move which reduced her confrontation with Aida to little more than a shouting contest). Kevin Langan's Ramfis sounded dry and strained; Vladimir Popov's Radames rarely rose above the adequate.

As for the spectacle of Aida, Schmidt's sets remain highly effective as an expression of Hollywood/Las Vegas operatic kitsch. There's no question in my mind that the productions of Aida mounted last fall by the San Francisco and Metropolitan Opera are solidly designed affairs. My question is: If Aida is going to be populated with disinterested singers who are only mediocre performers, directed by third-rate hacks, and conducted by maestri who are unable to ride shotgun on the musical pulse of Verdi's score, why bother? There's a lot more to this opera than box office receipts.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on January 18, 1990.

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