It is easy to see why New York audiences went wild when they heard the understudy, Latonia Moore, go on in the leading role in Aïda in March. One of her two big arias, Ritorna vincitor, happens in the first act. It is a tour de force, both vocally and acting-wise, and sopranos great and lesser have crashed on its rocky shores. On the other hand, Friday evening for the gala opening performance of Verdi's Aïda produced by the Dallas Opera, Moore was transcendent. All of the red carpet folderol that accompanies the opening of the opera season pales with the memory of her performance.
Vocally, she was superb with her big and beautiful voice that easily soared over cast, chorus and orchestra. On top of that, her acting was riveting. Every change of emotion was visible as the tormented and conflicted Aida poured out her heart. Little wonder there was an overwhelming ovation for her, both in New York's Metropolitan Opera production and in the Winspear Opera House Friday night. You can read an interview with her here.
Aïda may be one of the big operas, but its action is very intimate. If you take away all of the pageantry, it is really just a series of passionate one-on-one confrontations between the three characters that make up the classic love triangle.
Radames, the handsome Egyptian general, and Aida, an Ethiopian slave, are secretly in love. But Amneris, Egypt's princess, also loves Radames. Disaster follows. In order for the opera to work, therefore, you need three great singing actors who can sustain the intensity over all four acts.
Radames is portrayed by the very Italian tenor, Antonello Palombi. He has a solid tenor voice with baritone overtones and a secure top. In a role where many tenors bellow from start to finish, Palombi actually sings the dynamics that Verdi wrote in the score. Verdi asks for soft high notes, an anathema for most tenors capable of singing the role, but Palombi did a fine job with floating some lovely pianissimos, only rarely resorting to falsetto. He was especially effective in this effort in the last scene.
Lester Lynch, who was last seen in Dallas as the evil Crown in Porgy and Bess, made a suitably conflicted Amonasro, King of Ethiopia and father to Aida. In their big confrontation, where he asks Aida to worm the battle plans against his country out of Radames, you could see him melt when he realized that he had pushed his daughter too far. Both vocally and as an actor, he matches Moore note for note and emotion to emotion, and their confrontation takes its rightful place as the pinnacle of the opera.
As Aida's nemesis Amneris, Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva, was somewhat underpowered in the first act on opening night, and a bit reminiscent of Theda Bara, but blossomed as the opera went on. She was at her best in the final trial scene as she visibly went a little mad hearing Radames tried as a traitor and condemned to death (Aida's wheedling worked). Physically, she was too bent over the whole time in that scene; grief is not an intestinal disturbance. But there was no doubt that she was crazed with anguish, love and conflicting emotions.
Also from Bulgaria, Orlin Anastassov is impressive as Ramfis, the High Priest. He is an overpowering presence, both vocally and physically. Real bass voices are a rarity and Anastassov possesses a dozy, rich and deep from the top to the bottom of an impressive low range. He delivers a great acting moment in a scene where his character is silent. It comes after Radames marches to his trial and Amneris catches the priest's attention, hoping to intervene. She can see the helplessness of a Pharaoh's daughter to do anything from the severe and cold stare he gives her. We all felt the chill.
All of the singers in the smaller roles do a fine job as well. Bass Ben Wager impresses as the King of Egypt, tenor Jonathan Yarrington demonstrates a fine voice as the Messenger, and soprano NaGuanda Nobles is notable as the Priestess.
Michael Yeargan's set is always in a state of flux as walls and ceilings appear and vanish to enable very quick scene changes. This flexibility allows the Dallas Opera to present this four act opera with only one intermission, which is much-appreciated by those in the audience. The set is covered with Egyptian cartouches and conveys the massiveness we associate with the era of pyramids and the Sphinx. Steps roll in from both sides of the stage and act as convenient Choir risers. The set by the Nile River is a standout, with a row of delicate reeds framing the shoreline and a misty full moon hanging above.
The set only fails at the end, when there isn't a tomb provided in which to bury alive the hapless Radames and Aida (who snuck in to die with her lover). They just seem to have collapsed on a step somewhere. Without the claustrophobic feeling of a tomb, even though the Egyptian ones were quite large, their sudden death from suffocation was unbelievable, no matter how effectively the two singers conveyed it.
Music Director Graeme Jenkins was just terrific in the pit. His tempi were absolutely right on every time and if the stage got away for him for even an instant, he pulled it back within a few notes. He is a cool presence yet he expresses every nuance within his controlled beat pattern. The orchestra responded and delivered an excellent reading of what is a difficult score. Never once did the pit overpower the stage, which is no small feat in this big opera.
Stage director Garnett Bruce seems to prefer static stage pictures. Here, his tendency is to put ancillary characters and the chorus in formations and let the singers have all of the action, but it works much better here than it did last year in the Dallas Opera's production of Lucia di Lammermoor. The expected triumphal march is more of a gathering of the court, but it is effective, if just a little disappointing. The group of captives that Radames frees is somewhat smaller than usual and doesn't look very Ethiopian. However, Bruce moves his principals around well and handles the chorus in a stately manner.
Speaking of the chorus, Alexander Rom's is outstanding. The men's chorus was notably resonant. Gary Marder's lighting designs kept the stage bright for the big moments and created a lovely night scene for the Nile River. David Zimmerman does a fine job with the wig and make-up designs. The late Peter J. Hall's costumes are uneven, though. Aida and Amneris are dressed in modern-looking sparkly fabric and the King looks like a walking statue. However, all of the other costumes are magnificent, especially in the chorus.
Kenneth von Heidecke's choreography is appropriately minimal, which was probably dictated by the steep angle of the raked stage. How the dancers keep from slipping is a miracle. Besides, when opera choreography is overly ballet-like, it always looks intrusive, like the opera stopped and Swan Lake started for a few minutes. Von Heidecke's movements harken back to lots of movies in the '50s, especially with the use of large scarves for the women and sabers for the men, but it is always striking.
We may not have seen the much-hoped-for Triumphal March, replete with horses and camels, but we certainly get a triumphant performance of Aïda.