A friend tipped me off before I attended our new production of Un ballo en maschera. “Keep your eyes on Patricia Payne when she gets up out of Ulrica’s chair,” he said. “It looks just like the tree growing in the first act of Nutcracker!” He was right. Indeed, her talent stands almost as tall as she does. Having made her SFO debut earlier this season as Erda in Das Rheingold, Payne attacked the role of Ulrica with a dramatic and vocal intensity that had little competition during the evening.
This is not to say that it wasn’t an evening of vocal splendor. There were many stunning moments, but not where year old would normally expect them. Jose Carreras as Riccardo and Katia Ricciarelli as Amelia certainly have some glorious music to sing. Their voices can do justice to Verdi’s music but they are often uneven performers. There will be isolated moments of beauty in their singing and long patches of music where both performers coast along toward a more carefully prepared moment in the score. Both also tend to rely on stock operatic gestures (Carreras particularly plays into the footlights).
Far more interesting were the San Francisco debuts of Yuri Mazurok, a fabulous Russian baritone, as Renato and pint-sized Kathleen Battle as the page, Oscar. Ms. Battle has a bright future ahead of her filling the shoes of all those child-bride operatic virgins (Gilda, Lucia, Juliette, etc.). She is a delightful actress and possesses a voice which shines with promise. Her first act curtain calls next to Patricia Payne looked a bit like a Mutt & Jeff team, but in this case the supporting players were a far better show than the leads.
Kurt Herbert Adler’s conducting was surprisingly alive, not dragging as it had in previous years. The new production, designed by John Conklin, is impressive physically. The real stroke of genius shows in the last scene, placed inside the Stockholm Opera House. Sonja Frisell, the director, achieved a balance between the music and stage action that was remarkable. Her use of the commedia dell’arte players running through the masked crowd added that extra touch of grotesque charade to the final death scene. If much of the evening’s best music lacked any dramatic urgency, it was due to the tendency of Carreras and Ricciarelli to play to the prompter’s box, rather than to each other.
The season’s performances of Aida were another story. There were two casts. In the first string of Aidas, things were noticeably out of whack. Most of the cast was not in good voice. James McCracken’s voice was badly frayed and his use of a falsetto was painfully unpleasant. Gianandrea Gavazzeni’s conducting was erratic. At times the performers were jumping on cues like cats trying to catch a mouse. It seemed like a game of who could beat whom to the music. Gavazzeni would also suddenly change tempo in distressing ways. He must hold the record for the fastest Triumphal March in years: the supers couldn’t even run fast enough to catch up with him.
Making her San Francisco debut as Aida was an Italian soprano, Maria Parazzini, who brought a distinctly unprofessional attitude with her. Her voice is large, though often unfocused. At times she did some nice things with the role but needs time to develop her concept of Aida. When not singing she could sometimes be seen talking at McCracken as he was trying to sing. When facing upstage during the triumphal scene, she was often grimacing at the chorus. She refused to take curtain calls with the other principals on two nights, creating an atmosphere of discordance that might cause excitement and set the clacquers in a provincial Italian house drooling. Here it simply antagonized the audience.
If thrown slightly off balance, Aida falls squarely on into the hands of Amneris, and she becomes the dramatic focus of the evening. With much of the cast missing cues, unable to keep up with the conductor and the production generally falling apart at the seams, a miracle happened.
Fiorenza Cossotto has been around a long time and was making her long overdue San Francisco debut as Amneris. Cossotto possesses a huge and powerful voice and knows the role like the palm of her hand. She proceeded to mop up the stage with the rest of the cast, not deliberately, merely by default. She opened up her lungs like a 747 on takeoff and peeled the paint off the Opera House. Her Judgment Scene had the kind of old-time operatic excitement that makes you just scream with ecstasy. At one point Gavazzeni suddenly slowed his tempo and Cossotto looked into the pit as if to say “Listen, you, I’ve got lungs from Bethlehem Steel and I can match you beat for beat.” She did, and deserved the huge ovations she received at each performance.
The second cast hit a better balance. Gianfranco Cecchele in his San Francisco debut as Radames had a much more pleasing sound than McCracken’s strangulated singing. If he could not cut over the orchestra with as much force, it was certainly more tolerable. The new Aida, Eva Marton, proved to be a hot find. She has a huge voice and must be the angriest Aida I have ever seen. Her phrasing is different from the stock interpretation, but exciting. Bonaldo Giaiotti (the saving grace in this year’s Puritani production) brought a solid dignity to the role of Ramfis. The man’s voice is strong and powerful. He is a remarkable musician and has been one of those pillars of the Metropolitan for a decade.
Aida had a fascinating rival in the Amneris of Tatiana Troyanos. Although she, too, had trouble making herself heard over the orchestra, Troyanos has apparently developed a singular portrayal of the Egyptian princess. Her Judgement Scene is a character study of the feline bitch thrashing about in the wake of the man that got away. No crowns, no royal armor, just her long, shiny black hair, an aura of jealousy, and a heart on fire. Both ladies brought interpretations to their roles which were far from the norm, throwing the rivalry between Aida and Amneris into a much more human perspective.
Aida’s father, of course, has some gorgeous music and both casts were blessed with sturdy Amonasros. Norman Mittelman and Ingvar Wixell were both superb and provided some stability to an otherwise often rocky evening.
This Aida production is borrowed from the Metropolitan. It is a concise unit set, extremely well designed. If it lacks miles of stairs, it does let you concentrate on the singers. The carpeting all over the set soaked up a great deal of sound and gave the chorus trouble. Yet it also enabled them to produce some of their holiest sounds in the first act Temple Scene. The costumes by Peter J. Hall are stunning. The design of the production brings out the colors of Egypt more than any other I have seen; there are the desert sands and the wealth of gold. Aida is not an easy opera to pull off – the traffic problems alone are hair raising. Backstage during the Triumphal March was apparently managed with the precision and immedicay of a warfront hospital.
One sour note this eason is the tendency for performers to break character and steal a bow after an aria. In the Aida it reached a new low, with special solo spots provided for bows. I am strongly against this. Let the audiences scream their guts out (I assure you, I’m screaming along with the best of them), but let’s keep the singers in character. Opera is still musical drama, not a circus.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 8, 1977