In Review > North America

Aida

PALO ALTO, CA
West Bay Opera
5/25/12

Claiming that Aida is "essentially an intimate drama, a triangle of love," West Bay Opera general director José Luis Moscovich ditched the elephants to present Verdi's spectacle on the small stage of the 400-seat Lucie Stern Theatre. His rationale is curious — even without pachyderms, the triangle plays itself out in front of scores of priests, citizens, handmaidens and "enemy combatants" — but it allowed the packed audience to view grand opera through a microscope unavailable in a major house.

Moscovich went all out with a cast strong in graduates of San Francisco Opera's Merola Program and Opera San José's repertory company. Thanks as well to the largest chorus the company has yet assembled; to Peter Crompton's ever-changing, eye-catching sets; to Abra Berman's imaginative costumes (lavish by small company standards); to Chad Bonacker's imaginative lighting; and to the dancers of Yannis Adoniou's Kunst-stoff company, he largely succeeded in his mission. 

There were problems, to be sure. When male choristers were required to enter one on a part, the exposure was less than fortunate, and the dancers could do little more than wave their arms, spin in circles and parade around when everyone was onstage. Whoever was projecting the supertitles must have been texting between phrases, because their timing was from nowhere.

Director Yefim Maizel stumbled badly in too many places. If the staging in the Temple of Ptah was static, the amateurish antics of the volunteer chorus in the Palace Square and the aged overseer in Amneris's apartments were an embarrassment. Equally disturbing was Amneris's transformation from a spoiled, arrogant Valley Girl who always held her head high to, in the antechamber of the Judgment Hall, a quasi-hysterical version of Sarah Bernhardt unleashed.

With Moscovich barely able to limp onstage following emergency back surgery, Michel Singher stepped in as conductor. Once past the questionable intonation of the opening violins, the oft one-to-a-part orchestra, partially piped in from under the stage because the pit is so small, performed well, with Singher allowing his singers ample time to breathe.

Karen Slack's deeply felt Aida seemed modeled on Leontyne Price's glorious assumption — dramatic in tone, generous in volume, flexible in tempo and luminous on top. Slack paid great attention to the meanings of words, accenting them with an emotional commitment that made her character's passions believable. At her side, David Gustafson's ever-secure Radamès, almost as strong in volume, grew in vocal beauty as the evening progressed. Softening his voice in the final tomb scene to produce tones of surprising warmth, Gustafson was the strongest and best-equipped dramatic tenor I've heard in a Bay Area regional opera production.

Venezuelan–American mezzo Cybele Gouverneur, as Amneris, was equally impressive. Although she needed more heft on bottom for her most cutting pronouncements, and she occasionally resorted to straight tone at the very top, the richness and vibrancy of her generous, plush instrument seemed tailor-made for Pharaoh's daughter. In their WBO debuts, Allanda Small excelled as the High Priestess, and Douglas Botnick displayed a beautifully produced, exceptionally polished voice that lacked only weight and expanse that Amonasro needs as he ascends the scale. Although Isaiah Musik-Ayala's voice has blossomed, his Ramfis sounded far more stolid than pious, and Carlos Aguilar's King of Egypt lacked point and focus. Nonetheless, the exceptionally strong principals and beautiful visuals made for well-deserved, prolonged ovations. spacer

JASON VICTOR SERINUS

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