Monday, May 12, 2008

Review: Step up to Portland Opera’s Aida

The principals and chorus overcame some challenging scenery in Portland Opera’s Aida, which opened on Friday night to a full house in Keller Auditorium. Dominating the stage were a series of temple steps and an incredibly large statue of a falcon with a wing span of breath-taking proportions. Cast members crisscrossed the steps carefully, and once they were in position, they sang with the full-throttle conviction that this grandiose opera requires. Yet the sheer size of the steps took away the space needed for big procession of the warriors after the battle between the Egyptian army and the Ethiopians. So, the overall spectacle of the opera was reduced somewhat.

Lisa Daltirus created an energetic and compassionate Aida with convincing acting and thrilling singing. Daltirus showed her fantastic range and grasp of dynamics, matching words, phrasing, and sound to make the conflicted character of the princess-slave come alive. One of the many vocal highlights she did occurred in the third act, when she shot out a small beam, focused, pure sound with no vibrato and then gradually increased the volume, added vibrato, and kept it heartrendingly beautiful at the same time. And her acting was totally amazing with facial expression, gestures, and timing that drew the audience into her perspective.

Philip Webb sang the role Radames, captain of the Egyptian guard and the lover of Aide, wonderfully. Webb’s “Celeste Aida” glowed with radiance and power, and his voice became stronger as the opera progressed. Webb’s presence as a leader of armies needed to show more confidence and his acting, in general, looked wooden. He looked uncomfortable ascending the stairs that were built into the unfolded wings of the falcon-statute and his sash came undone. But he delivered his passages terrifically and nudged the sash over the edge with his foot before he descended.

As Amneris, the daughter of the king of Egypt, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo guarded her voice in the first act but let it grow as the opera unfolded. By the last act, she unleashed the full anger and anguish of a woman who knew that she would forever be unhappy. Her actions as the vengeful and emotionally charged rival of Aida were outstanding.

Keith Miller as Ramfis, chief priest and Greer Grimsley as Amonasro, the captured Ethiopian king and father of Aida gave superb performances. Their declamatory bass voices suited their characters perfectly. Jeffrey G. Beuran had the physical stature but needed more heft and depth in his voice as the king of Egypt.

In place of the procession of Egyptian soldiers at the end of the first act, an ensemble of dancers re-enacted the battle between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians on the steps. The athletic dancers performed well, but the mock rape of the Ethiopian priestess seemed to push the point of defeat a little too much. The two body builders who carried the Egyptian high priestess, Sharon Apostolou, were struggling to maintain their balance at the top of the steps. Fortunately, no one took a spill, but it looked dicey at times.

The falcon-statue rotated to help change the setting from scene to scene, revealing a tomb for the last act. The scenery and properties were designed by Gerard Howland and are jointly owned by Portland Opera and nine other opera companies. It’s a smart but treacherous set that has no handrails, so anyone who descended the steps needed to make sure that his/her footing was secure. Stage director Sandra Bernhard did a good job in making sure that the movement of choruses and principals didn’t get in each other’s way. (The original production of this version was directed by Colin Graham.)

I liked it when hieroglyphics were projected onto the walls and steps, and lighting designer Helena Kuukka didn’t do anything tricky with color schemes or else we might have seen some people tumble.

The costuming, designed by David C. Woolard, seemed to be out of joint. Amneris wore a dress with an overextended bustle and an odd headdress. Aida wore a print number that harkened to cotton field garb of 19th Century America. At least the Egyptian priests looked sort of priestly.

Robert Ainsley fashioned a well-balanced sound for the chorus that reached a satisfying zenith at the end of the Triumphal March. But overall, I wanted more volume from them at other crucial moments in the opera.

Conductor Vjekoslav Sutej expertly led the orchestra, which played better than ever.

1 comment:

Lorin Wilkerson said...

Yes, the rape of the Ethiopian priestess did labor the point somewhat; rather than being sinister it actually seemed slightly comical to me, and I doubt that that was the intended effect.

I was entranced with Daltirus' Aida though; I was sitting towards the back and was amazed at how clearly audible her pianissimo was, especially when coupled with her ability to project her voice and sing out over the immense chorus. I was positively spellbound during "O Patria Mia." She's a marvelous dramatic soprano and I can't wait to hear more of her. I thought that Miller's powerful bass was very exciting to hear, and after Daltirus his voice was my favorite for the evening. (Of course, being a bass-baritone myself I won't profess to being completely unbiased...)

I was a bit skeptical at first, but once it got going I really enjoyed the set; for all that it was completely centered around the immense falcon, they did a lot with a little (or a lot with a lot, as the case may be here); merely rotating it a bit and bringing on a divan was enough to effect a convincing change of scenery. It was sparse enough so that a subtle shift in lighting produced a much larger effect than one might expect.