Opera Warhorses

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Review: Zambello’s Spectacular “Aida”, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2016

November 6th, 2016

The San Francisco Opera unveiled its new production of Verdi’s “Aida”, created by Director Francesca Zambello. The new production was the occasion for the role debuts of two respected artists, Michigan soprano Leah Crocetto and New York tenor Brian Jagde whose international careers were launched by the San Francisco Opera.

[Below: the triumphal scene in the 2016 Francesca Zambello production of Verdi’s “Aida”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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Leah Crocetto’s Aida

In the title role, Leah Crocetto was convincing both vocally and dramatically. She possesses the ability that an artist needs for the role to portray emotion through vocal expressiveness and affecting pianissimi. 

[Below: Leah Crocetto as Aida; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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In Zambello’s fast-paced staging, Crocetto’s Aida at one moment is expressing internal anguish, alone onstage, and in the next instant she is engulfed in a big scene with dozens of characters.

[Below: Leah Crocetto as Aida; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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Brian Jagde’s Radames

Tenor Brian Jagde became the first artist to create the role of Radames in a new San Francisco Opera production in 35 years. (For both Jagde and his 1981 predecessor, Luciano Pavarotti, it was a role debut.)

Jagde was a formidable Radames, convincingly performing the challenging aria Celeste Aida. He proved that he has the requisite vocal power for Radames’ succession of big scenes – his investiture as commander of the Egyptian military, the triumphal scene, his entrapment by Amonasro and Aida in an act of treason, and his acquiescence to the sentence of death by Ramfis’ priests.

[Below: Brian Jagde as Radames; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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In Zambello’s staging, Jagde’s Radames has a credibility and humanity that can be missing from some directors’ stagings of the opera. He is a conflicted character who has sworn loyalty to a system that he has begun to doubt as a result of his romantic attachment to Aida, whose homeland is an enemy country. [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Jagde.]

[Below: the high priest Ramfis (Raymond Aceto, left) celebrates the investiture of Radames (Brian Jagde, right) with the leadership of the Egyptian armies; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Amneris

Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk possesses power in her lower register and luxurious beauty at the top of her range needed for the iconic role of the Princess Amneris. Semenchuk successfully portrayed the vengeful woman who is Radames’ unwelcome suitor and her slave Aida’s rival.

[Below: Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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George Gagnidze’s Amonasro

A specialist in Verdi’s baritone roles, George Gagnidze, from the Republic of Georgia, was an authoritative Amonasro, giving a persuasive performance that suggested a determined leader who inspired the enemy forces. His duet with Crocetto’s Aida was one of the evening’s many vocal high points.

[Below: Amonasro (George Gagnidze, left) persuades his daughter Aida (Leah Crocetto, right) to return with him to their homeland; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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[See Verdi and Verismo: An Interview with Baritone George Gagnidze.]

Raymond Aceto’s Ramfis

Ohio basso Raymond Aceto’s deep, rich voice is well-suited for Ramfis, one of Verdi’s great basso cantante roles. Aceto’s portrait of the high priest effectively represented the power of the Egyptian priesthood.

[Below: Raymond Aceto as Ramfis; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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Maestro Nicola Luisotti and the Musical Performance

Verdi’s orchestration for “Aida” is one of the supreme achievements of Italian opera. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Maestro Nicola Luisotti, provided a masterfully nuanced performance from the first ethereal moments of the opera’s prelude.

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, which exhibits high standards in opera performance, is comprised of virtuoso artists. The orchestra’s principal instrumentalists are frequently called upon to accompany an artist’s vocal performance, such as principal oboist Mingjia Liu’s haunting accompaniment of Crocetto’s Nile scene aria, O patria mia.

Other artists contributing to the musical performance were Minnesota bass Anthony Reed as the King of Egypt, New Zealand tenor Pene Pati as a Messenger and Pennsylvania soprano Toni Marie Palmertree was a Priestess.

Francesca Zambello’s Production

The opera “Aida” is one in which universal human relationships – ambition, erotic attraction, jealousy, insecurity – take place in a exotic setting. The emotional triangle that ensnares the warrior Radames and the two women who love him are the heart of the piece. The setting’s time and place – an imaginary ancient Egypt where wars, dynastic politics, and priestly rites rule – provides the “local color”.

[Below: Enclosed in a tomb, facing death together, are Aida (Leah Crocetto, left) and Radames (Brian Jagde, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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In a Zambello production, one expects the human relationships to dominate her story-telling.

In Zambello’s “Aida”, these relationahips are nowhere more obvious than the “tomb scene”. Crocetto’s Aida and Jagde’s Radames are alone onstage at the footlights, a black scrim separating them from the main stage. We experience two lovers who know their remaining lives will be brief and that they will die together. There is no physical tomb on which Amneris bewails the loss of the husband she was promised, only a spotlight on Amneris’ ghostly face that appears through the scrim towards the end of the lovers’ O terra addio.

Once Zambello has decided how the human “relationships” will be portrayed, then her imagination is at work on how to present the “local color”. There is an homage to ancient Egypt through the inventive art of Marquis Duriel Lewis (who uses the name RETNA), whose scenic designs suggest hieroglyphics.

[Below: the King of Egypt (Anthony Reed, right) listed to the pleas of the Ethiopian prisoners, including Amonasro (George Gagnidze center, kneeling) and Aida (Leah Crocetto, front row, second from left), observed by a skeptical Ramfis (Raymond Aceto, second from right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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Zambello has imparted to the warrior class in ancient Egypt behaviors that she associates with modern day countries in which war is prevalent. (The analogies to the present-day Middle East might occur to some.)

Anita Yavich’s costumes for the men – whether they are soldiers, priests, young boys or the King of Egypt –  are variations of military uniforms. These directly contrast with the luxurious women’s costumes of Amneris’ court.

[Below: the women and young boys of Amneris’ quarters; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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One of the issues in staging “Aida” is that it contains ballet sequences in both the Temple and Triumphal scenes that long tradition decrees cannot be cut.

Zambello integrated the ballet sequences into her conception of a militarized society. The dramatic result was a series of male dancers performing paramilitary ballets, choreographed by Jessica Lang, in her San Francisco Opera debut.  [For a previous Zambello-Lang collaboration that I had enthusiastically praised see Superlative: Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nadine Sierra, Ensemble Dancers Superb in Jessica Lang’s Visualization of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – Glimmerglass Festival, July 20, 2013.]

[Below: a soldiers’ ballet entertain those present at the Triumphal Scene; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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In perhaps the most controversial element of the new production, Lang suggests a gang rape of a woman dancer who performs with eight male dancers, an obvious indictment of the excessive machismo that even in contemporary times is associated with areas of the world in which women’s rights are denigrated.

The soloists in the dance ensemble were Michigan dancer Rachel Speidel Little and Colombian dancer Jekyns Pelaez.

[Below: dancers in a paramilitary “Aida” ballet; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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The often austere sets were by Texas designer Michael Yeargan. Mark McCullough was lighting designer. Ian Robertson was chorus director. Lawrence Pech was dance master and Clifton Brown Associate Choreographer. E. Loren Meeker was associate director.

[Below: a procession along the Nile in Act III of “Aida”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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Recommendation

I recommend this opera, production and cast enthusiastically, both to the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.

 

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