Tom Does the Nile in Costa Mesa – O.C.’s “Aida” April 20, 2006

Tom’s Review of Opera Pacific’s “Aida”:

Little “Ole” Orange County, formerly derided as a provincial backwater by the self-appointed nabobs of “culture” elsewhere in California (no, we won’t name names) just keeps growing up, what with another new (and fabulous) music venue about to open across from the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts (where Opera Pacific presents its seasons). Designed by no less a luminary in the architectural world than Renzo Piano, this new – and magnificent performance house will open this October highlighted by Valeri Gergiev’s much anticipated Kirov Opera (Mariinski Theater) Wagner Ring Cycle long before the Metropolitan Opera in New York sees it ! Imagine if you will, a Ring cycle in Orange County, definitely a first in Southern California – a harbinger of great things to come I suspect.

But this cultural progress in Orange County was certainly enhanced by Opera Pacific’s very extravagant outing of Verdi’s beloved Aida from Opera Montreal, which clearly was inspired by their cross-town Super-star Le Cirque de Soleil which has made its creator, Monsieur Laliberte’, a billionaire according to Forbes listing of the richest people! This production’s sets and other amenities came from Montreal and assuredly rival the grandeur of any production of Aida I’ve seen in 45+ years, whether in San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago or New York (except the Met’s colossal sets), or in Europe. Of special note, this marks Opera Pacific’s 20th Season!

The basic set is a very large, classic much hieroglyph-engraved Egyptian Temple which is adjusted for the many scenes. We see huge stone statutes of Horus, the falcon god of divine order, and of Sekmet, the lion goddess of power and war – with sensational lighting. John DeMain conducted this piece with real fervor, giving it excitement and elegance (seen 20 April 2006).

Our Aida was Angela Brown (who did this title role at the Met in 2004 to rave-reviews – where I saw her for the first time), opposite (as Rhadames) a young former engineering student from Beijing, Yu Quing Dai, about whom I suggest we’ll see and hear much more. They both took a bit of time to warm up, but were both outstanding for their celebrated solo numbers. The triumphal march scene was truly spectacular, nearly on the scale as that done for years at the Met (but no camels, horses, dogs . . .), but a scale never seen in opera before in L’il Ole Orange County !

The Amneris was Yugoslavian Milena Kitic – she was terrific, and evidently the Met has thought so too, as she will be heard this season in NYC ! The Pharoah was Stefan Szkafarowsky (listed in our program as just an American singer), who presented a singularly impressive figure with a bass to match the splendor of this production.

But the best waited for the last in the Tomb scene – a black/purple sky with streaks of blood red clouds, a towering statue of Osiris centered atop the facade of the temple – with Angela Brown sounding much like a very young Leontyne Price who I heard do this in San Francisco decades ago. And our Rhadames came off like a young Jose Carreras !! They brought the House to its feet in a roaring, standing ovation (frankly not often seen in Orange County).

This was opera on a scale rarely seen these days except in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. The delight is that regional opera companies, with limited budgets, can acquire productions like this and present them splendidly. Opera Pacific has been doing this for many years, and to great acclaim. The “campus” on which Opera Pacific performs includes not only the large house in which the operas are presented, and a World-Class – and very new –Repertory theater (South Coast Rep), and now a truly World Class symphony hall every bit the equal of San Francisco’s Davies and LA’s striking Frank Gehry Disney Hall. This, where bean fields (I well remember them) existed not many years ago!! Opera is alive and very well, thank you very much, in Orange County!