Any opera company worth its music stands, or so you’d think, would honor “Aida” as a the crown jewel in its repertory; no other opera, after all, so fully epitomizes everything embraced under the term “operatic.” Still, it has taken the Los Angeles Opera all the years from its shaky start in 1986 until this week to take the measure of Verdi’s glorious pageant of love and betrayal beside the Nile. Has it been worth the wait? Yes, somewhat.
In his time, Plácido Domingo has owned his share of the opera; no tenor was ever more clearly born with the music of Radames in his soul and his tonsils. For his inaugural outing since coming on as the L.A. Opera’s artistic administrator, Domingo appeared under another of his hats, conducting a beautifully paced, neatly balanced reading, by some distance the most eloquent piece of musical leadership he has yet displayed here. Would, alas, that the cast assembled under his baton were worthy of its place. On opening night, at least, there were problems.
American soprano Deborah Voigt was the Aida, South African tenor Johan Botha, the Radames, both in their company debuts, both well matched at least physically and both, alas, equally worthy of one another’s audible deficiencies. For all her eloquence as a Wagnerian – including her recent duet disc with Domingo on BMG – Voigt seemed little more than a singer with a pretty voice outclassed by the grand melodic line, the throb of heartache and torn loyalties that turn Verdi’s heroine passionate and memorable. Nothing in Botha’s performance came across as anything but a hard-edged, uninvolved delivery, impressively loud with a few gulped tones here and there.
What vocal gold there was on opening night was mined by the Amneris of Russian mezzo Nina Terentieva and the Amonasro of Simon Estes: she with a fiery onslaught that took a scene or two to settle onto accurate pitch, he with a thread of eloquence still wound around a voice that has been around for a while. Smaller roles were adequately managed by Louis Lebherz, Jaako Ryhänen, Cynthia Jansen and, as the Messenger, Bruce Sledge who, a day before, had been a finalist in Domingo’s Operalia competition.
Better than any of its cast was the production itself, the first local viewing of the work of Italian stage designer Pier-Luigi Pizzi, beautifully showing off Pizzi’s flair for etched, monumental lines and forms, handsomely highlighted in sharply contrasting colors, with a couple of proscenium-high elephants for extra laffs. First built in 1987 to inaugurate Houston’s Wortham Opera Center, the production has had some use over the years, and a seam or two attests to that; as starkly defined in Alan Burrett’s lighting designs, however, this was a handsome, up-to-date “Aida” setting, free of overstuffed traditional encrustations.
Those latter qualities were, alas, abundantly evident in Stephen Pickover’s blocky staging, and in the traditional hootchy-kootch of Daniel Pelzig’s choreography of the opera’s oversupply of dance episodes – except, that is, for one terrific acrobatic number in the Act-Two celebrations. Given an Aida of, shall we say, less-than-sylphide proportions, and a Radames of matching ponderosity, Pickover may have had no choice but to limit his stage movements to the old-timey stand-and-deliver manner; still, the discrepancy was hard to ignore, between Pizzi’s handsome sets and the stage biz that filled them.
Never mind; the big news for “Aida”-starved Los Angeles operagoers – tantalized over the years by a ludicrous number of announced and then cancelled productions by several equally ludicrous producer-wannabes – was that the opera of choice has arrived, that it sounds pretty good, and looks like a million dollars. That, at L.A. Opera’s current $148 ticket top, almost sounds like a bargain.