With Verdi's monumental spectacle Aida, Portland Opera nicely redeemed itself from its disastrous Rodelinda in February, closing out the 2007-08 season with its all-around best production of the year.
Musically this performance was at a very high level. Under conductor Vjekoslav Sutej, the Portland Opera Orchestra played better than I have ever heard them. There were many thrilling moments throughout the evening; the brass section, especially, was outstanding. He is a great partner for the singers, understanding the give-and-take nature of Italian opera, driving the orchestra but also letting the singers breathe comfortably and shape their own phrases. I also thought it was a nice gesture when he raised his hands over his head, plainly visible, to join the rest of us in applause following soprano Lisa Daltirus' formidable "O patria mia."
If I might be allowed one teeny complaint: the eerily beautiful hymn to Ftah at the close of the first act was taken too fast; done a bit slower, it has a marvelous hypnotic, other-worldly quality that was lacking, even with Sharin Apostolou's radiant cameo as the offstage priestess.
In the title role, Daltirus gave a passionate performance, expressive and traditional in the best sense of the word. Her high notes had a tendency to pierce rather than soar, but she did everything the score required of her, including a tight but sufficiently pianissimo high-C in act three. From the first scene, she effectively conveyed that Aida is trapped in a no-win situation that grows increasingly desperate. I brought three neophyte friends with me who were all convinced that it would turn out well in the end, and were quite distressed by the tragic ending.
As the hero Radames, tenor Philip Webb had a stellar night. Okay, not a great actor, but the role of Radames is a powerhouse demanding great stamina, alternating between ringing high notes, forceful declamatory passages, and tender lyric singing: he had it all. Far and away, he was the best Radames I've ever heard live. Though he took a little bit of time to warm up into "Celeste Aida" -- easily forgiven -- by the end of the first act he sounded great, and he stayed strong all the way to the end, including a heroic "Io resto a te!" at the end of the third act.
Early on, I was worried about mezzo-soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo as Amneris; she seemed in control, but I felt her voice was maybe two sizes too small to be right for the role. True, she is not a force-of-nature mezzo a la Dolora Zajick, but it turned out she was smartly husbanding her resources, singing expressively but conservatively until the fourth act when she absolutely let it rip. Girlfriend tore it up. Fantastic.
Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley has one of my favorite voices: deep and dark, but full of character and ping -- and power! Yet I had to admit, I did not care much for the way he plowed through the lyrical arioso "Ma tu re" that begins the second act finale. Keith Miller's Ramfis was sturdy and effective. As the king, bass Jeffrey Beruan was not up to the task.
The understaffed Portland Opera Chorus did their best; there are some subpar voices among the male singers, but they managed to summon sufficient volume for the big scenes and were actually quite impressive in the many sotto voce passages.
The production...oh, well...hmmm. I think SMB put it best in his review in JustOut. I'm not sure I would say it was "tired" so much as...well...remember in my Rodelinda review when I said minimalism works great for Handel? It sucks for Aida. I don't care how many times you play "spin the birdy," it's still the same set. For four hours. The giant moon they flew in for Act III looked like an enormous chocolate chip cookie.
The costumes were almost okay, but I had a real problem with Amneris in heels and a Victorian bustle. I mean, huh? Aida's first-act costume, with what appeared to be a bedsheet from the sale bin at K-Mart used as a sash, was unpersuasive. The triumphal scene supers, with their cheap, ratty wigs and uneven, splotchy, red-brown body paint in a shade that no human being has actually ever been looked pretty terrible.
In pointing out another critic's error in his review, SMB notes that choreographer Penelope Freeh was only recreating the dance moves originally conceived by James Sewell for this production's premiere a decade ago at the Minnesota Opera. That's no excuse. The choreography was a disgrace. Tacky, amateurish, and gauche. The battle recreation, complete with gang-rape, in the triumphal scene was embarrassing and offensive, and just altogether out of place.
Despite that, it was a thoroughly entertaining evening of an overall quality that greatly surpassed the season's earlier offerings.