Aspen 11: A Resplendent “Aida,” Rip-Snorting Ginastera, and “Pines of Rome” in Technicolor

 United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival (11): Berlioz, Borodin, Ginastera, Meyer, Mozart, Respighi, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Verdi. Soloists; Robert Spano, Federico Cortese, and Josep Caballé-Domenech (conductors). Aspen, Colorado. 7-9.8.2015 (HS)

August 7

Verdi: Aida
Benedict Music Tent

Aspen Festival Orchestra, Robert Spano (conductor); Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Duain Wolfe (director); Aspen Opera Theater, Edward Berkeley (director)
Aida: Tamara Wilson, soprano
Amneris: Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano
High Priestess: Pureum Jo, soprano
Radamès: Issachah Savage, tenor
Amonasro: Brian Mulligan, baritone
Ramfis: Morris Robinson, bass
The King: Matthew Treviño, bass
Messenger: Landon Shaw, tenor

Aspen Chamber Symphony, August 8
Benedict Music Tent

Veronika Eberle (violin), Edgar Meter (double bass), Federico Cortese (conductor)
Mozart: Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor
Meyer: Double Bass Concerto in E
Ginastera: Estancia Suite

Aspen Philharmonic, August 9
Sarah Chang (violin), Isabel Leonard (mezzo-soprano), Josep Caballé-Domenech (conductor)

Borodin: Overture to Prince Igor
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor
Berlioz: Les nuits d’été
Respighi: Pines of Rome

Aspen Music Festival always has presented great singers. Soprano Renée Fleming is a prominent alumna of the school here, and remains a big supporter. But in recent years, the quality and quality has been on the increase.

Festival president Alan Fletcher, a serious opera lover, no doubt has had a hand in recruiting impressive singers. Earlier this summer tenor Vittorio Grigòlo gave a dynamic solo recital, and last Sunday afternoon, the luxuriant mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard soothed ears with Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été.

But the big news was Friday night’s semi-staged performance of Verdi’s Aida in the Benedict Music Tent, with a cast that few opera houses in the world can match today. Set in ancient Egypt, the opera follows the love triangle among Amneris (the Pharaoh’s daughter), Radamès (leader of the country’s troops) and the title character, an Ethopian slave.

Several of the five principal roles have longtime Aspen ties. Soprano Tamara Wilson made an Aida of magnificent vocal beauty and vulnerable acting, and as Aida’s father Amonasro, Brian Mulligan showed that he has developed into a serious Verdi baritone. Both studied at the opera program here and now sing on major stages. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who deployed astounding technique, vocal power and richness as an Amneris, with deep, communicative character, has been singing here regularly in recent years, and Morris Robinson, no stranger to Aspen, made the tent reverberate with his resplendent bass and created a formidable presence as Ramfis, the high priest.

Tenor Issachah Savage, who sang the role with the Boston Symphony last year, spun Radamès’ music with more lyric elegance than sheer power. He showed range to spare in “Celeste Aida,” an aria that sends pangs of fear into most tenors because it’s in the opening scene. If he foundered a bit at the very end of the opera, the rest was delicious to the ear.

Wilson’s voice carried the top line over dense ensembles with ease and delivered riveting accounts of her two big arias. She soared with “Ritorna vincitor,” making clear her emotional conflict upon learning that her lover Radamès was to lead the Egyptian army against her own country and her father. Even better, “O patria mia” culminated in floating clouds of sound in her highest range. In the final duet, she and Radamès melted the heart as they prepared to die together.

DeYoung avoided the manic histrionics affected by many singers playing Amneris, and created a character that was genuinely regal yet wily enough to trick Aida into revealing that Radamès had betrayed his country. Her solo scene, outside the tribunal where Radamès is condemned for treason, was a model of inner conflict underneath outer composure. She let her current of electric sound define the character.

Members of this year’s Opera Theater roster also distinguished themselves in smaller roles, especially soprano Pureum Jo as the High Priestess. The squally high notes that marred her Juliette in Gounod’s opera earlier this summer were gone, and the beauty of her creamy, accurate singing carried easily throughout the 2,100-seat tent. Bass Matthew Treviño made a noble young king and tenor Landon Shaw dispatched the messenger’s lines with precision.

Conductor Robert Spano drew sounds from the orchestra that could swell from gossamer wafts in intimate moments to broad proportions in the spectacular “public” scenes. If the orchestra’s contribution missed the ebb and flow that veteran opera orchestras and conductors achieve, the big triumphal scene delivered appropriate vigor and generosity. The only hitch was placing what the score calls a “stage band” behind the audience, which set up a recurring out-of-sync tennis match with the orchestra at the front of the tent.

With the orchestra grouped on one side of the stage, most of the dramatic action took place in front of a translucent pyramid-shaped backdrop, a series of wave-like sculptures hanging on the back wall and a raised walkway in front of the orchestra. It put the singers in position to act their scenes well enough, but five unwieldy weather balloons toted by extras standing in for the triumphal parade drew titters from the audience.

On balance, though, this was a huge achievement, doing what great opera should. It touched off emotions while rolling out splendid music.

On Saturday night, the Chamber Orchestra under conductor Federico Cortese provided solid support for two very different soloists. But the most exciting music came at the end. Ginastera’s Estancia Suite—four dances from his Argentinian ballet—ended with a robust “Malambo” finale, executed with rip-snorting rhythmic intensity by all hands.

Virtuoso Edgar Meyer played brilliantly in his Double Bass Concerto in E, a piece he wrote in 2012. After a mysterious opening, it picks up steam, finally breaking free in the final section, the best part of the piece. In Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, soloist Veronica Eberle applied her formidable technical command to bringing out composer’s mood shifts. She and the orchestra gave plenty to chew on: a doleful first movement, an intricate scherzo, a somber passacaglia and a rollicking finale.

That left Sunday’s concert to the all-student Aspen Philharmonic, which usually plays Wednesdays. Conductor Josep Caballé-Domenech did an admirable job backing violinist Sarah Chang in the Sibelius concerto and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard in Berlioz’s song cycle, Les nuits d’été. Toning down the histrionics she has displayed in previous appearances, Chang displayed some heartfelt music-making. For Leonard, however, the Berlioz songs might still be a work in progress. She applied lovely tone and clear diction, and the softer, more poignant sustained high notes were a revelation, but long stretches went by without much inflection.

On their own, however, conductor and orchestra finished the concert with Respighi’s Pines of Rome in full Technicolor and Panavision. Twenty minutes of gripping scene painting concluded with extra brass scattered around the tent to create vivid surround sound. In this case, the additional players synched perfectly with the orchestra on stage.

Harvey Steiman

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