Baptism by Fire for Conductor Ayrton Desimpelaere in Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège’s Aida

BelgiumBelgium Verdi, Aida: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège / Ayrton Desimpelaere (conductor), Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, Liège, 12.3.2019. (RP)

Aida © Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège

Aida – Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi
Amneris – Marianne Cornetti
Radamès – Marcello Giordani
Amonasro – Lionel Lhote
Ramfis – Luca Dall’Amico
The King – Luciano Montanaro
High Priestess – Tineke Van Ingelgem
Messenger – Maxime Melnik

Director – Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera
Sets – Jean-Guy Lecat
Costumes – Fernand Ruiz
Lighting – Franco Marri
Choreographer – Michèle Anne De Mey
Chorus Master – Pierre Iodice

One week you are savoring the artistry of Nello Santi in Zurich in the twilight of his career, and the next you’re cheering on a young conductor who stepped in at the last minute and triumphed. Speranza Scappucci, the Musical Director of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, was scheduled to conduct this performance of Aida, but he withdrew at the last minute due to health reasons. Ayrton Desimpelaere, less than a third the age of Santi, stepped in and rose to the occasion.

The young Belgian is the company’s assistant conductor, but it was still a baptism by fire as it was his first time conducting the opera. Some passages were perhaps slower than usual, but that made for an especially graceful Temple Scene, enhanced by Michèle Anne De Mey’s subtle choreography and the fine singing of the men in the chorus. The Triumphal March was well-paced, and in Act III when the cast jelled, there was electricity in the air. The ovation that Desimpelaere received when he took his bow was richly deserved.

Perhaps I attended one too many updated productions in the past few weeks, but Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera’s traditional concept for Aida felt so right. Tall pillars painted with hieroglyphics dominated either side of the stage and framed an imposing statue of an Egyptian deity. The banks of the Nile, a maze of vegetation effectively lit, hid the witnesses to Radamès’ treason. For the Triumphal March and final Tomb Scene, the house’s elevators were put to use, creating the spectacle that Aida more than any other opera demands.

The set and costumes were expertly fashioned in the company’s own workshops. Scene changes were executed efficiently and silently. (Something that should be a given, but experience dictates otherwise.) Fernand Ruiz’s costumes were rendered in subtle hues that lent a sumptuous richness to the staging. The production was in perfect sync with the dictates of the score and libretto.

The Triumphal March was enlivened by the movements of the dancers cum acrobats. There was the remarkable feat of Amneris being spun about in a giant ring, while on a nearby pedestal a male dancer stood on his head contorting his legs into hieroglyph-like shapes. Aurally it was just as impressive with soloists, chorus and the triumphal trumpets facing the audience, their sound resonating throughout the theater.

As the Ethiopian princess, Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi was dramatically convincing, but her essentially lyrical instrument was not up to the role’s more strenuous vocal demands. With careful preparation, she could float beautiful high notes: ‘O patria mia’ was thus compelling but ’Ritorna vincitor’, which requires more vocal heft, made little impact.

Marcello Giordani’s glory years were in the 1990s. He still has a good third act in him, and his confrontation with Amneris that followed likewise evoked memories of him in his prime. Most disappointing, he appeared disengaged and bored much of the time.

As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum, and young tenors perhaps even more so. Maxime Melnik as the Messenger bolted onto the stage and, with just a few lines to sing, made an impact. It was a night for youth in all its glory.

For true Verdian voices, Marianne Cornetti as Amneris and Lionel Lhote as Amonasro were on hand. Cornetti’s voice soared in the Act II finale, riding over the chorus and orchestra with ease, and later blazed white hot as the spurned princess vented her rage at first Radamès and then the priests. Lhote, a firebrand of a king, bristled with excitement both vocally and dramatically.

As his Egyptian counterpart, Luciano Montanaro was solid of voice and imposing in his royal robes and towering headdress. Luca Dall’Amico as Ramfis was appropriately cunning and calculating, with a bass voice that had an appealing brilliance to it. Although never seen on stage, soprano Tineke Van Ingelgem’s lovely singing as the High Priestess did much to enhance the rites in the Temple of Vulcan where Radamès was installed as the commander of the Egyptian armies.

This, however, was Desimpelaere’s night. Many were in his corner, especially the chorus and orchestra, those who know him best. This critic was too.

Rick Perdian

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