Performance of 18 July 2013
Music Hall

Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi
Director: Bliss Hebert
Set and Costume Designer: Allen Charles Klein
Lighting: Thomas C. Hase
Chorus Master: Henri Venanzi
Choreographer: Rosa Mercedes

Aida: Latonia Moore
Radames: Antonello Palumbi
Amneris: Michelle De Young
Amonasro: Gordon Hawkins
Ramfis: Morris Robinson
Pharaoh: Gustav Andreassen
A Messenger: M. Andrew Jones
A Priestess in the Temple of Vulcan: Alexandra Schoeny
Temple Solo Dancer: Sarah Hairston

Some of my thoughts/observations on yesterday evening’s performance:

This was an Aida to delight the traditionalists, with a number of old-fashioned touches – some good, a few not so good. Allen Charles Klein’s sets and costumes were colorful, eye-catching, and realistic in the manner, if not the scale, of productions by Franco Zeffirelli, with the action very clearly set in ancient Egypt. Bliss Hebert had directed Cincinnati’s last production of Aida in 2007, as well as La Traviata in 2008, and Lucia di Lammermoor in . . . 1978. So he has been working as an opera Regisseur since long before the concept of Regietheater existed. Unfortunately, his approach reflected the fact that he’s been directing operas for more than 35 years, and was old-fashioned to the point of often being static. There were a number of times in last night’s performance that came perilously close to the old “stand and deliver” days of opera. Perhaps it was the result of the sheer size of the Music Hall auditorium and the need for singers to project their voices clearly into that vast space that the soloists faced the audience so frequently instead of each other. In the Triumphal Scene, Amonasro had his back to the King of Egypt for much of the time he was supposedly addressing him; sometimes, characters confronting each other, such as Aida and Amneris, were almost at opposite ends of the stage. Only once in a while did we see anything close to realistic interaction between the figures in the drama.
Fortunately, the deficiencies in the “Personenregie” were often more than compensated for by the impressive quality of the singing. Latonia Moore left no doubts why she is one of the world’s Aidas of choice today. Her beautiful, full lyric soprano had the necessary power to carry over the orchestra, and her portrayal of the Ethiopian princess was deeply expressive and full of nuance and detail. Her tender, floated pianissimi on high notes were exquisite. With a warm, attractive mezzo that was also full of expressivity, Michelle De Young made Amneris a credible rival for Radames’ affections. Her anguish and remorse in the Trial Scene were palpable and made Amneris a very moving and ultimately sympathetic figure. Antonello Palombi sang Radames with a bright, clarion tenor and powerful high notes that shook the rafters in the Springer Auditorium. He did try to give his character some shading and nuance, but it occasionally felt artificial, as though he were singing for effect – unlike Ms. Moore, where it sounded natural and heartfelt. He went for a pianissimo on the final high note of “Celeste Aida” that nearly veered into a falsetto croon. His acting was generally limited to stock operatic gestures and pacing around the stage. But in his defense, I have to say that if the choice is between fine singing paired with rudimentary acting, or an Oscar-worthy portrayal allied to ugly, technically flawed singing, I’ll opt for the former every time.
Gordon Hawkins was a riveting Amonasro with his grand baritone and stage presence, while Morris Robinson as Ramfis impressed listeners with his magnificent, commanding bass. One had the sense that the High Priest, and not the King, was the person calling the shots here. (And a different director may have taken that idea and gone somewhere with it.) There were respectable performances from Gustav Andreassen (King of Egypt), M. Andrew Jones (Messenger), and Alexandra Schoeny (High Priestess). And, of course, Aida is an opera where grand spectacles are important, and solo dancer Sarah Hairston and other members of the ballet corps lent grace, athleticism, and beauty to all of the pageantry.
The audience absolutely loved conductor Carlo Rizzi, and he drew some very impressive playing from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit. The tonal colors in the overture were wonderfully delicate, and there was plenty of grandeur and opulence in the Triumphal Scene and other big choruses. (Kudos here to chorus master Henri Venanzi and his wonderful singers.) But there were also a few moments in passages with rapid tempos where I thought Maestro Rizzi was going to leave his soloists behind. Luckily, that didn’t happen, and either he, or they, or both quickly adjusted.
I was rather surprised to spot some vacant seats yesterday evening (including the one to my right), figuring that one of the most popular standard repertoire staples and the presence of some major soloists, including Ms. Moore and Mr. Hawkins, would have resulted in a sell-out. Perhaps the audience will be larger at the next performance on the weekend. And what was even stranger was the disappearing act pulled by the couple a little further to my right after the second intermission. As operas go, Aida is not extraordinarily long. Barring an emergency, I will never understand these premature departures. On a positive note, there were still plenty of young adults along with us middle aged and older folks present in the audience, so I don’t expect opera will be dying out any time soon.