04 June 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — AIDA (M. Johnson, P. S. Drackley, H. Kim, B. Major, J. Bisch, S. Zaikuan, J. Roche, E. Brown; Opera Carolina, 9 April 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Carolina's April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography, © by Opera Carolina]GIUSEPPE VEDI (1813 – 1901): AidaMichelle Johnson (Aida), Peter Scott Drackley (Radamès), Hyona Kim (Amneris), Brian Major (Amonasro), Jordan Bisch (Ramfis), Song Zaikuan (Il re d’Egitto), Jersey Roche (Gran sacerdotessa), Elliott Brown (Un messaggero); Opera Carolina Chorus, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Linda Brovsky, director; Michael Baumgarten, lighting Designer; Roberto Oswald, set designer; Anibal Lápiz, costume designer; Martha Ruskai, wig and makeup designer; Gabriela Sevillano, choreographer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Saturday, 9 April 2022]

An integral part of the unceasing work of safeguarding and enriching the vitality of opera in the Twenty-First Century is the process of assessing the comparative virtues of scores, analyzing their amassed contexts, and debating which pieces merit expenditure of limited resources. Many factors are employed in justifying the popularity of some scores and the neglect of others, one of which is an opera’s appeal to audiences now accustomed to visual-centric cinematic storytelling. Are some operas too intrinsically defined by the times and places of their creation to captivate today’s audiences?

Whether they were conceived for grand public events or in response to milestones in their creators’ lives, are not all works of art inherently pièces d’occasion? Commissioned to inaugurate Cairo’s opulent Khedivial Opera House, constructed in celebration of the completion of the Suez Canal, Giuseppe Verdi’s and Antonio Ghislanzoni’s Aida was the intended product of a grand occasion with few peers in opera’s history. Falling victim to political and logistical complications of war, Aida did not reach the new theater’s stage until 1871, two years after the Khedivial Opera House’s formal christening, for which Rigoletto was substituted for the custom-written score. Its origins notwithstanding, Aida’s drama, centered upon cultural conflicts and collisions of public personas and private sentiments, is as captivating in 2022 as it was in 1871. As Opera Carolina’s exhilarating production tunefully and touchingly demonstrated, the wars by which the world is divided and devastated have grown more calamitous, but Aida’s poignancy remains undamaged.

Dominated by a gargantuan effigy redolent of Nineteenth-Dynasty images of Ramesses II, Roberto Oswald’s set designs transformed the Belk Theater stage into a credible representation of the Egypt that Aida-loving audiences expect to see. Though unfailingly evocative, Aníbal Lápiz’s costumes were inconsistent in paralleling the production’s scenic aesthetic, seeming more Greco-Roman than Egyptian in some scenes. [Opera Carolina’s male choristers and supernumeraries earned particular praise for their bravery in donning attire that left far less to the imagination than some of them might have preferred.]

Looking exceptionally natural, Martha Ruskai’s wigs and makeup were models of operatic stagecraft at its finest, and her work was ideally complemented by Michael Baumgarten’s lighting. Director Linda Brovsky capitalized on these elements to stage an Aida that suited the space in which it was presented. The pageantry of the monumental final scene of Act Two was realized more effectively than in many larger-scaled productions, the procession of conquering warriors and spoils of war cleverly managed. Brovsky offered the Charlotte audience an appealingly traditional Aida that delivered all of the piece’s venerated grandiosity whilst avoiding the pomposity and stereotypes that afflict too many productions of the opera.

Under the baton of Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director James Meena, the Charlotte Symphony musicians played Verdi’s difficult score capably and often gracefully. The high string figrations in the opera’s Prelude were aptly ethereal, and the string playing was consistently musical. Brasses and woodwinds were similarly reliable of balance and intonation, the former enlivening the triumphal scene with sounds of stirring brilliance. The Danza sacra delle sacerdotesse in Act One and the Danza degli schiavi mori and the orgiastic Ballabile in Act Two, expertly choreographed by Gabriella Sevillano, were excellently paced by Meena, whose gift for choosing tempi that serve both composer and performers was evident throughout this Aida. Bolstered by the conductor’s rhythmic clarity, the diligent training of Opera Carolina’s chorus yielded singing of tremendous resonance. Insightfully husbanding the company’s musical resources, Meena brought an Aida worthy of Italy’s great opera houses to the Queen City.

Although Aida is not an ensemble piece in the manner of Verdi’s Falstaff, the quality of a performance of Aida is markedly reduced by poor singing in any of the opera’s principal or secondary rôles. Thankfully, enjoyment of Opera Carolina’s invigorating Aida was lessened by no inadequacies among the cast. Epitomizing the uniformity of the production’s vocal distinction, tenor Elliott Brown sang the Messaggero’s dire pronouncements in Act One rousingly, declaiming ‘Il sacro suolo dell’Egitto è invaso’ with a palpable sense of alarm. Similarly, the Gran Sacerdotessa’s ‘Immenso Fthà, del mondo spirito animator’ in the Gran scena della consacrazione that ends Act One was voiced diaphonously by soprano Jersey Roche, the words floating into the auditorium with fitting reverence.

IN REVIEW: the Triumphal Scene in Opera Carolina's April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography, © by Opera Carolina]Ritorna il salvatore della patria: the Triumphal Scene in Opera Carolina’s April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography, © by Opera Carolina]

The mighty Egypt depicted in Opera Carolina’s Aida could only be ruled by a resolute sovereign, and bass Song Zaikuan occupied Il re d’Egitto’s throne with unforced vocal and dramatic authority. The pharoah’s regal demeanor was audible in the singer’s handsome-toned delivery of ‘Alta cagion vi aduna’ in Act One, and he introduced the familiar melody of ‘Su! del Nilo al sacro lido’ with bravado. Glimmers of pragmatic magnanimity shone in Song’s characterization in Act Two, his voicing of ‘Salvator della patria, io ti saluto’ suffused with nationalistic and paternal pride. Sagaciously honoring Radamès’s plea for mercy for the vanquished Ethiopians without wholly disregarding Ramfis’s brutal counsel, Song’s Re sonorously tempered the Egyptians’ unrelenting bloodlust.

As the warmongering Egyptian high priest Ramfis, bass Jordan Bisch was a towering figure whose vocal profile did not always equal his intimidating physicality, especially in the lower reaches of the part’s range. After a marginally unsteady account of ‘Sì: corre voce che l’Etiope ardisca’ in the opera’s opening scene, Bisch’s singing strengthened as the performance progressed, and his dramatic instincts spurred him to enunciate Ramfis’s lines in both the final scene of Act One and the triumphal scene in Act Two with vehemence. The first and final scenes of Act Three were very congenial for the bass, his voice projected with greater ease. The matter-of-fact malace of Bisch’s vocalism in the scena del giudizio in Act Four was chilling, intimating that, to this Ramfis, handing down a death sentence was no more consequential than reciting a prayer. In this portrayal, being the instrument of retribution was a cherished responsibility rather than an inescapable duty of Ramfis’s position.

Even amongst Verdi’s famously demanding rôles for baritone, parts that span virtually the entire Nineteenth-Century musical spectrum, Aida’s father Amonasro is a fearsome character whose vocal and dramatic challenges are confoundingly disproportionate with the duration of his time on stage. It can be argued that Amonasro is Verdi’s most Wagnerian baritone rôle—an argument supported by the shouting heard from some interpreters of the part. In Opera Carolina’s Aida, baritone Brian Major portrayed Amonasro not as an Italian-speaking Holländer on holiday by the Nile but, harkening back to Giuseppe Taddei’s assumption of the part, as an obvious descendant of the bel canto rôles that inspired Verdi’s writing for the baritone voice. The disguised king emerging from the ranks of the Ethiopian prisoners of war in the second act’s triumphal scene, Major sang ‘Suo padre... Anch’io pugnai’ assertively but nobly, the top Es and Fs both forceful and emotive.

Amonasro’s tense meeting with Aida and Amonasro by the Nile in Act Three is one of Italian opera’s most riveting scenes, made all the more engrossing in this performance by the baritone’s electrifying singing of ‘Rivedrai le foreste inbalsamate.’ Torn by his conflicting love for his daughter and quest for vengeance against the Egyptians, Major’s Amonasro startled by infusing the deposed king’s raging with traces of tenderness. There is little subtlety in Amonasro’s exulting in the success of his strategem in the subsequent trio with Aida and Radamès, but the proud man’s aristocratic constitution remained apparent in Major’s refined singing. Vocal control of a now-rare order was the cornerstone of Major’s performance, his fidelity to Verdi’s notes and dynamic markings restoring to Amonasro the musical propriety that he all too often lacks.

IN REVIEW: the Judgment Scene in Opera Carolina's April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography, © by Opera Carolina]Falsa giustizia: the Judgment Scene in Opera Carolina’s April 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney Photography. © by Opera Carolina]

The high caliber of singing that has become a hallmark of Opera Carolina productions notwithstandin​g, an Amneris of the stature attained by mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim would have been noteworthy at the Arena di Verona or Teatro alla Scala. Kim’s portrayal of Amneris at once recalled extolled depictions by Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, and Fiorenza Cossotto and approached the rôle with her own unique sensibilities. This Amneris owned the stage from her first entrance in Act One, intoning ‘Quale insolita fiamma nel tuo sguardo’ in the trio with Radamès and Aida sinisterly. Kim wielded the word ‘sorella’ like a concealed dagger, luring Aida into her confidence and then plunging it into her rival’s heart. Prodding her people to war, this Amneris seemed keen to lead the Egyptian troops into battle herself.

The opening scene of Act Two allows an Amneris to exercise her femininity, and Kim was as convincing as the maidenly princess as she was as the severe tigress in other scenes. Feigned affection coursed through her demure singing in the duetto with Aida, but the daughter of pharaoh’s hidden agenda surged from the mezzo-soprano’s explosive ‘Trema, o vil schiava!’ Frequently shrieked, the top C♭s in the triumphal scene were here genuinely sung, as were the baleful accusations in the final scene of Act Three. Kim’s skills as singer and actress triumphed in Act Four, her account of ‘L’aborrita rivale a me sfuggia’ cogently imparting the wounded woman’s wrath. In the duet with Radamès, she voiced ‘Già i sacerdoti adunansi’ stunningly, dominating the pair of top B♭s. So momentous was Kim’s performance in the scena del giudizio, the top As utterly secure, that the guilt-stricken lover’s humanity overshadowed her treachery. The prayers as Aida and Radamès expired in the tomb were whispered, Amneris facing the demise of her contentment. Musically and histrionically, Kim was an Amneris to the manner born, an of-the-blood princess rather than a pretender.

In his first performance of one of the most daunting spinto rôles in the repertory, tenor Peter Scott Drackley sang Verdi’s music for the Egyptian warrior Radamès with enviable assurance, mastering a tessitura that some of his fellow interpreters of the part are grateful to merely survive. The part’s difficulty is compounded by the character’s sole aria being positionsd in the opera’s first scene, moments after the singer’s initial appearance on stage. If this test unnerved Drackley, trepidation was not discernible in his singing of ‘Se quel guerrier io fossi!’ His timbre and vocal amplitude reminiscent more of Carlo Bergonzi than of Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli, he simultaneously sang with brawn and lyricism. Untroubled by its three top B♭s (and the numerous recurrences of the tone throughout the opera), he phrased the romanza ‘Celeste Aida, forma divina’ expansively, regarding it as a private reverie rather than a stentorian declaration. Already suspecting Amneris’s duplicity, this Radamès exhibited caution in the terzetto until Aida’s arrival, when his hushed ‘Dessa’ signaled a change in his deportment.

Radamès’s joy upon being named commander of the Egyptian army was unmistakable, but, here and in the cantabile in Act One’s final scene, Drackley also limned the soldier’s cognizance of the risks of his love for Aida. Returning victorious in the triumphal scene, this Radamès’s thoughts again turned to Aida, his request for pharaoh’s pardon for the Ethiopian prisoners born of his empathy for Aids’s suffering. Radamès joining his beloved on the bank of the Nile, unaware of being observed by her father, Drackley voiced ‘Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida’ ardently, passion at last subjugating patriotic loyalty. His horror upon discovering Amonasro’s plot and Aida’s part in it was devastating, the top As with which Radamès lamented his unintended treason thrillingly sung. Drackley was a worthy adversary for Kim in the Act Four duet with Amneris, his defiance boldly but honorably articulated. After his serene ‘La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse,’ Drackley movingly conveyed Radamès’s anguish at finding Aida concealed in the tomb in which he must perish. In the final duet, the tenor’s voice rose beautifully to the pianissimi above the stave. Crucially, Drackley sang Radamès’s music with his own voice, never forcing the tone or distorting his timbre’s innate luster by attempting to emulate another singer’s portrayal.

Many gifted sopranos have learned through experience that success in the title rôle of Aida depends upon more than possessing a voice with the requisite range and weight for the music. The most memorable interpreters of Aida inhabit the rôle with depth that transcends musical aptitude, and, allied with vocal accomplishment, it was her immersion in the part’s psychological complexity that lent soprano Michelle Johnson’s portrayal of Aida affecting profundity. The hesitation with which her Aida entered in Act One was indicative of her demoralizing discomfort at the Egyptian court, yet her conviction grew with each successive passage of the terzetto with Amneris and Radamès, her voicing of ‘Ohimè! di guerra fremere’ ascending to a resilient top B. Her top Cs in ensembles were fearless, but her traversal of ‘Ritorna vincitor’ touchingly communicated Aida’s consternation, and her ‘L’insana parola, o Numi, sperdete!’ coruscated with emotional intensity. Her singing of ‘Felice esser poss’io’ providing a glimpse of Aida’s true lineage, Johnson’s sparring with Kim in the Act Two duetto with Amneris accentuated the scene’s indebtedness to the ‘dialogo delle due regine’ in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Johnson ensured that Aida’s dismay was omnipresent amidst the triumphal scene’s cacophony.

Alone for the first time in the opera in Act Three, Johnson’s Aida retreated into her own thoughts, voicing ‘Qui Radamès verrà!’ pensively. Its eagerly-awaited exposed top C engenders undue emphasis on the romanza ‘O patria mia! mai più ti rivedrò,’ but Johnson’s performance justified its prominence, the oft-mangled top C intuitively integrated into the line rather than being over-sustained egotistically. Aida’s contemplation interrupted by Amonasro’s unexpected arrival, Johnson uttered ‘Ciel! mio padre!’ with visceral panic, and her vocalism in the harrowing duet and the trio that ensued upon Radamès’s appearance was intriguingly expressive, the listener drawn still further into Aida’s private discord. The rapturous beauty with which she phrased ‘Presago il core della tua condanna’ and the sublime ‘O terra, addio’ revealed the abiding deliverance from sorrow that death alongside Radamès brought Aida. Johnson’s singing was not without effort, but every brief flash of stress heightened the credibility of her appealingly personal interpretation of the part. She was an Aida who felt each of the character’s emotions acutely, and this was an Aida in which the eloquence of Verdi’s music prevailed over the woes of the world.