Vegas on the Nile
by Philip Campbell
The San Francisco Opera's new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida opened last weekend at the War Memorial Opera House. The confused and confusing staging has many intelligent insights to offer, and the musical values remain high, but listeners must forgive or try to ignore an awful lot of visual interference to really hear the well-loved score.
Director Francesca Zambello has been cooking up a pared-down, modernized setting for her re-telling of the familiar tale for several years. Debate over her Glimmerglass production of 2012 found the generalized Middle Eastern locale and images of water-boarding and death by lethal injection over-the-top, but Zambello has the smartness to self-edit when offered time to reconsider.
The new production finds a more restrained vision struggling to emerge amidst a bewildering display of awkward and puzzling choreography, surprisingly cheap-looking sets and a mixture of costumes that befuddles rather than emphasizes the director's concept.
Dominating all is the artistic design of visual artist RETNA. His bold and ageless hieroglyphs often make an effective backdrop, but just as frequently add to a hot mess of stage imagery. The light boxes in the famous Triumphal Scene make an admittedly spectacular impression, sort of , and the sheer vulgarity of it all may well be the point.
It is just too bad we have to supply the back-story while attempting to ponder out SFO debutante choreographer Jessica Lang's strange dance moves. A lone female is abused, then seemingly exultant as she offers herself to the king. Observed by soldiers/priests who have donned costumer Anita Yavich's black see-through peignoirs over their uniforms, the act ends in a shower of gold confetti.
Well, alrighty then, ya got your crowds and parade. No elephant, but lots of curiously wrapped booty and some miserable prisoners of war. The members of the love triangle, with the titular character's captured dad joining in, attempt to stand out to fulfill some of the composer's most arduous vocal demands.
Time to just roll with it, or rather surrender yourself, as I did after the scene in the apartment of Amneris where the sequestered females lounge about in caftans, taking hits on hookahs, looking like a squad of Morgana King impersonators. If you have ever seen a team challenge on Project Runway, there's no reason to belabor the point, and to be fair, audience reaction was typically polite.
An interesting article in the program magazine makes the case for Aida as essentially chamber opera with a big fat crowd scene in the middle. Zambello makes a genuine attempt to realize that sense of intimacy and to provide fresh relevance, but she is shouted down by the excesses of her teammates. Maybe they misunderstood, but this production implodes amidst the welter of ideas.
Maestro Nicola Luisotti (we're going to miss him when he's gone) rises in the spotlight to almost save the day. His characteristic attention to detail makes for some seductive moments, especially in the ballet music, and his marshaling of the lopsided balance in the pit allows for thrilling effects during crescendos.
Chorus Director Ian Robertson is also an undisputed master of the house, with his remarkably game crew sounding impressive, whether onstage or off. The SFO Chorus will be appearing in the concert Out of the Shadows on Sat., Nov. 19, at the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera. For once, they will probably relish getting out of makeup with a chance to showcase their talent unadorned.
In the leading roles, SFO turned to some already tried-and-tested rising stars to make sense of the new Aida. Leah Crocetto makes her role debut as the tortured princess, but she has proven herself a major Verdian soprano before with a big assignment in the title role of Luisa Miller. Her mixture of clarity and warmth perfectly suits the repertoire. On opening night she started beautifully, but her voice acquired more vibrato and edge than usual as the night wore on. She still finished able to float an exquisite pianissimo, evoking a memory of the legendary Montserrat Caballe.
I was looking forward to hearing tenor Brian Jagde, also making his role debut as her lover Radames, with a little worry that his bright and steady tone might be too light for the part. No problem, as he essayed his characterization with power to spare. He also added personality, and under the circumstances, deserves special honors.
Making up the major corner of the love triangle as Amneris, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk earned her big final ovation with a strong and sympathetic performance.
Baritone George Gagnidze returns from his highly lauded appearances early in the season in Andrea Chenier to sing Aida's father Amonasro. His dark-toned voice is right for the part, but this time, his acting seemed a little bland.
Bass Raymond Aceto, who has forever earned a spot in the SFO Hall of Fame with his unforgettable Reverend Olin Blitch in Susannah , plays the Egyptian High Priest Ramfis with his customary blend of dark tone and convincing menace. He might be sick of playing villainous roles, but I have yet to tire of seeing them.
SFO's Aida continues through Tues., Dec. 6.