Grandeur and Intimacy in Poignant Aida

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Aida: Soloists, Cincinnati Opera, Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Music Hall. Cincinnati, Ohio. 18.7.2013 (RDA)

Photo: Philip Groshung
Photo: Philip Groshung

Aida – Latonia Moore
Amneris – Michelle DeYoung
Radames – Antonello Palombi
Amonasro – Gordon Hawkins
Ramfis – Morris Robinson
The King of Egypt – Gustav Andreassen
High Priestess – Alexandra Schoeny
Messenger – W. Andrew Jones

Stage Director – Bliss Herbert
Scenic & Costume Designer – Allen Charles Klein
Choreography – Rosa Mercedes
Lighting – Thomas C. Hase

In 1867 Verdi was asked to write an opera for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, but the accumulation of other commitments and various health problems caused him to drag his feet on the lucrative commission, and Aida had to wait for its premiere at the Cairo Opera House until December of 1871. The cranky and out-of-sorts Maestro refused to travel to Egypt for the premiere, choosing instead to attend the Milan opening night of his latest work in 1872. The opera was a sensational success and, within a few years, made its way to every major opera house around the world. Aida is by far the grandest, largest in scope—and for this listener one of the most beautiful—of Verdi’s late operas. Singers capable of handling the long Verdi line and trumpeting the big moments are essential, embedded as it is in our minds by memories of so many great artists of the past. The Cincinnati Opera delivers an Aida to make us all proud.

Latonia Moore, a young spinto soprano with awesome reserves in the upper and lower range, an unflagging legato line and plenty of heft in the middle voice sang “Ritorna vincitor,” unleashing her voluminous voice in the opening middle passages and then tapering off to a lovely pianissimo for “Numi, pieta del mio soffrir.” Her Nile scene proved beyond a doubt that she owns the role with a meltingly sung “O patria mia,” easily rising to the notorious high C at the end with total aplomb.

Tenore di forza Antonello Palombi is an exceptional member of a new generation of Italian singers who have moved into the international opera circuit with impressive results. The young singer is a burly fellow with the physique of a warrior and a voice to match, and stopped the show with a flawless “Celeste Aida” that he then capped with a gorgeous messa di voce on the cliffhanger high B-flat Verdi assigned to his Radames.

Voluptuous and enticing in both her encounters with Radames, terrifying as a force of nature in her confrontation with the executioners in the final act, and ultimately poignant in her final prayer in the last moments of the opera, Michelle DeYoung, as Amneris, is a big-league Verdi mezzo with looks, presence and ample voice.

Gordon Hawkins, a baritone with a rock-solid voice, made an admirable impression as Amonasro, noble but wily in his address to the Pharaoh, gently paternal in “Pensa che un popolo vinto, stracciato…” and blood-curling in his thundering condemnation of his enslaved daughter.

The ever-impressive Morris Robinson continues to grow in his more frequent forays into the big Verdi roles in a carefully guided but fast-rising career. His Ramfis is authoritative and formidable. Robinson is a Cincinnati favorite and this listener longs to hear him in a major Verdi role. This is a one-in-a-thousand voice, not one in-the-making—think Guardiano, Fiesco, Silva, or Procida—a major singer ready to go.

In the supporting roles of the King of Egypt, the messenger, and the off-stage voice of a priestess, bass Gustav Andreassen, tenor W. Andrew Jones and soprano Alexandra Schoeny, respectively, sang their brief but important assignments with utmost professionalism.

Conductor Carlo Rizzi paced the performance perfectly, ever helpful to the singers’ needs, and elicited a unified sound from the orchestra that accompanied the stage forces with sensitivity. Yet he cut loose in the big moments, never more so than in the triumphal march.

The world-class production by Bliss Herbert and Allen Charles Klein is dramatically and visually accurate and satisfying, carefully observing Verdi’s and librettist Ghislanzoni’s stage directions, and insightful in its response to the between-the-lines messages the composer provided to his designers and directors. Special mention must be made of the wonderful work of the Cincinnati Opera chorus under the direction of Henry Venanzi, and the splendid and poetic lighting of Thomas C. Hase.

Verdi wrote extended dance sequences for those houses that demanded them—especially the Paris Opera. In the case of Aida, the Khedive of Egypt must have asked the Maestro to provide some ballet sequences, and Verdi obliged with the Consecration scene, the charming dance of the slave children in the second scene of Act I, just prior to the triumphal march in which substantial dancing and stylized movement are needed. The production choreographer, Rosa Mercedes zeroed in on the essence of what ancient Egyptian dance must have looked like, responding to Verdi’s music with a mix of hieratic poses, some complex acrobatic sequences for the male dancers and the children, and some terrific ensemble work throughout. Her contribution never called undue attention to itself but seamlessly blended into the dramatic and musical fabric.

Aida’s ingredients make a potent operatic brew: grandeur in the larger choral scenes—the declaration of war, the consecration scene, the triumphal march, and the judgment of Radames—and intimacy and honest acting when only two people are onstage. With this brilliant and flawless production the Cincinnati Opera—America’s second oldest company— continues to claim its place at the forefront.

Rafael de Acha