A Worthy Utah Opera Aida Enhanced by Graceful Orchestral Playing

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Aida: Soloists, Utah Opera, Utah Symphony, Ari Pelto (conductor), Janey Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City, Utah. 18.3.2016 (BJ)

Director: Garnett Bruce
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Alice Bristow
Lighting Designer: Nicholas Cavallaro
Wig and Make-up Designer: Yancey J. Quick
Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston
Choreographer: Daniel Charon
Stage Manager: Kathleen Edwards

Ramfis: Derrick Parker
Radamès: Marc Heller
Amneris: Katharine Goeldner
Aida: Jennifer Check
The King of Egypt: Matthew Treviño
Messenger: Christian Sanders
High Priestess: Rebecca Pedersen
Amonasro: Alfred Walker

To say that the most memorable element, in this Utah Opera performance of one of the grandest of grand operas, was the beauty of the woodwind playing in the work’s quieter moments is not to suggest that there was anything substantially wrong with what I found a mostly successful presentation. But if plaudits are to be handed out, the first and biggest must go to conductor Ari Pelto and the musicians of the Utah Symphony.

As anyone acquainted with the Mahler recordings that Maurice Abravanel made for the Vanguard label in the 1960s and ’70s will be aware, Salt Lake City’s orchestra has a long-established tradition of artistic and technical excellence. It was clear from the playing on this occasion that it has maintained that quality under the music directors, including Joseph Silverstein and the present incumbent, Thierry Fischer, who have followed Abravanel’s remarkable 32-year tenure. The tonal sheen and immaculate intonation that Pelto drew from the violins in the many high exposed passages Verdi gave them to play was impressive evidence of this, while the beauty and subtlety with which oboist Robert Stephenson and his fellow woodwind principals realized what amount to virtual obbligato parts offered fresh illumination in the arias they graced.

Thus compellingly supported, the cast performed with due care for the nuances of the music and the dramatic demands of the story. If there were no great voices on display, the rich, firm bass-baritone that Derrick Parker unfurled in his dignified portrayal of the high priest Ramfis came the closest to meriting that lofty estimation, and the rest were all at least serviceable and cleanly produced. Susanne Sheston’s chorus, too, made a strong contribution to the effect of the whole.

On the visual front, I am not qualified to assess the historical authenticity of Alice Bristow’s costumes, but I thought Michael Yeargan’s sets and Garnett Bruce’s direction worked well for most of the evening. But the decision to play the judgment scene with the priests fully visible instead of backstage led to one egregious social blunder, when a mere priest, unthinkably, pushed Amneris—a princess!—forcefully out of the way.

Director and designer, moreover, seem to have thrown up their hands in despair when it came to making sense of the final scene. The vital separation between the interior of the temple above and the dungeon below was not at all clearly delineated, so that Amneris’s crucial part in the concluding drama went for practically nothing. And the silliest decision, when Radamès was supposed to be trying unsuccessfully to lift the stone sealing his living tomb, was to have him instead attempt to push one of the pillars down, which, if like Samson he had succeeded, would have brought the whole edifice down on his and Aida’s heads.

Altogether, such occasional missteps aside, this was a worthy and enjoyable Aida (not, by the way, “Aïda,” as the program book spelled the name, consistently, but erroneously, since the diaeresis is a diacritical that doesn’t exist in Italian orthography). If I was, in the last analysis, not totally convinced by the visual aspect of the production, it is only fair to add comments on one contributing factor, which was something nobody could have done anything about. The 103-year-old Capitol Theatre is a house of considerable charm and elegance, but its stage is as much too small for an opera of Aida’s visual demands, as its seating is for the knees of even a relatively short man like me. I understand that plans are afoot to build a new, larger theater and then to rejig the seating in the Capitol, and I hope that charm and elegance will not be lost sight of, in whatever future uses the artistically ambitious Utah Opera will make of its expanded physical resources.

Bernard Jacobson

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