San Diego Opera opened its production of Verdi’s beloved grand opera Aïda Saturday at San Diego Civic Theatre with as winning a cast of Aïda singers as you will hear just about anywhere. The three principals—soprano Michelle Bradley as Aïda, tenor Carl Tanner as Radamès, and mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova as Amneris—revealed attractive, powerful Verdi voices and never stinted on the emotional vibrancy we expect from this tabloid-worthy romantic triangle set in ancient Egypt.
And they were surrounded by other striking singers in the cast. As Ramfis, the Egpytian High Priest, Simon Lim’s rich, resonant bass commanded attention with his every pronouncement, and baritone Nelson Martínez as the Ethiopian King Amonasro projected sufficient snarl in his substantial instrument to convincingly bully Aïda into betraying Radamès, bringing the plot to its tragic conclusion. In the role of the King of Egypt, bass Mikhail Svetlov may have seen more glorious vocal days, but he held his own in this elite company.
This San Diego Opera production, however, was not a typical staging of Aïda. The San Diego Symphony, conducted by Joseph Colaneri, was seated on the stage, with members of the Opera Chorus arrayed slightly above and behind them. Sporting Dame Zandra Rhodes’ elaborate costumes, the principal singers portrayed their drama in front of the stage, above the pit in which the orchestra usually plays for operas. “A theatrical concert staging” was one description applied to this cost-saving compromise. Scenic elements were limited to symbols such as large pyramids at the rear of the stage and two very tall two-dimensional figures at either side of the stage front.
As General Director David Bennett promised in his greetings before the opera commenced, the placement of the principal singers up front on the proscenium brought them much closer to the audience, and their voices filled the vast Civic Theatre with a presence and immediacy we don’t ordinarily experience when the singers sing from the middle of the stage. And bringing the orchestra members out of the pit both increased the clarity of their softer passages and added to the brilliance of Verdi’s more robust orchestral passages, especially those favoring the brass sections.
However, placing the Opera Chorus at the back of the stage, diminished their volume and sonic presence, even though this production’s chorus was larger than most of the company’s productions. When the San Diego Symphony used to perform in Civic Theatre—those years prior to moving to the Jacobs Music Center—we learned that it took a 100-member chorus seated behind the orchestra to balance the orchestra.
The most elaborate set could not have increased our appreciation of either Bradley’s impassioned Act 3 aria “Oh, patria mia” or the searing dramatic urgency of her subsequent confrontations with Martínez’s Amonasro and Tanner’s Radamès. But even the orchestra’s stirring account of the famous grand march—a piece even people who have never seen the opera recognize—could not displace the disappointment of nothing happening during one of the most celebrated processionals ever written.
Michelle Bradley’s performance of the title role left nothing to be desired. She gave us a proud, assertive Aïda capable of expressing the humiliation of her subjugation to the haughty Egyptian Princess Amneris, and Bradley’s ample, dramatic soprano voice contained just enough spinto shimmer to execute the wide range of vocal challenges Verdi gave this role. Olesya Petrova’s rich mezzo-soprano matched the breadth of Bradley’s vocal profile, and the Russian singer balanced her character’s jealousy of Aïda with heartfelt expressions of love for Radamès.
When Carl Tanner sang Calaf in San Diego Opera’s 2017 production of Puccini’s Turandot, I expressed a few reservations about his vocal performance. His Radamès, however, proved vocally compelling from the start, and as the evening progressed, his radiant tenor gave a depth and empathy to his character that eludes many tenors in this role.
Soprano Tasha Koontz gave a sterling account of the High Priestess’ solo in the choral anthem sung in the temple of Vulcan, and tenor Bernardo Bermudez’ Messenger communicated urgency and winning vocal presence.
Considering the limitations of this staging—no long staircases from which to make a stately entrance, no pillars to hide behind—Alan E. Hicks’ inventive direction kept his characters in motion and clarified their relationships. Chris Rynne’s subtly modulated lighting mitigated the austerity of this staging. Rhodes’ playful, vivid costumes saluted the Egyptian revival styles of the 1920s, and what could be used from Michael Yeargan’s scenic design helped define the space in minimalist fashion.
No doubt the opera staff and the board will be discussing the merits of using this type of theatrical concert staging again. May I suggest that it is a possible way to present a lesser-known opera, say Boito’s Mefistofele or Janáček’s Jenufa. For such operas, most audience members will not have memories of full productions they have experienced, memories that doggedly underscore what they are missing in a theatrical concert staging. But staging another beloved, frequently produced opera in this format may bring about audience disappointment that could be just a unfortunate to the company’s finances as staging a lavish grand opera.
San Diego Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aïda” opened on October 19, 2019, in San Diego Civic Theatre and will be repeated there on October 22, 25, and 27, 2019.