KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 11, 2001
In case you were wondering, there are no elephants in this “Aida.” When I first saw the Verdi opera, I was 12 and we were outdoors at the Baths of Caracalla in Italy. When the Triumphal March began, and the elephants tramped onstage, I was wide-eyed, open-mouthed and absolutely transfixed. On opening night of the San Diego Opera edition of “Aida,” a production that premiered here in 1996, people were talking about elephants they’d seen and loved — in Italy, even in Orange County. But the Civic Theatre was Jumbo-free. Instead, the act two extravaganza is heralded by John Malashock’s dancers — dark-skinned, bare-chested men and skimpily gold-clad women, moving angularly and athletically like hieroglyphs sprung to life. This seemed a small celebration of the Egyptians’ battle victory. But by the end of the scene, the pageant had increased exponentially and there were an astonishing 200 people onstage, in full, glorious voice. The chorus is beautifully dressed and masterfully directed. The stage pictures are gorgeous; the scenes change rapidly and effortlessly (which cannot always be said of local Opera productions), and the scenic design is wondrously evocative of ancient Egypt — with its earthy colors, spiritual iconography, enormous scale and mammoth statuary.
Verdi’s 1871 masterwork, one of the most beloved of all operas, tells the story of Aida, an Ethiopian slave in the Egyptian court. She loves the warrior Radames, and so does the Princess Amneris. Radames loves Aida, but he must fight against the Ethiopians and their king, Aida’s father. Torn between her allegiance to her lover, her father and her homeland, Aida tricks Radames into divulging his battle plan. For this, he’s charged with treason and condemned to death. Both women still want him, but only one gets him. If you don’t know the story, figure it out for yourself; the opera isn’t called “Amneris.” But in this production, she gets the high emotion and the high praise. Marianne Cornetti may not always be flatteringly costumed, but her rich mezzo-soprano is impeccable. Tenor Richard Margison’s Radames is competent, if not earth-shattering. The bass-baritone roles are richly sung, but the centerpiece is a disappointment. As Aida, Elena Zelenskaya is better in her higher than her lower vocal ranges, and her emotional scale and physical moves are limited. But there are so many eye-popping and ear-pleasing elements to this production, it’s definitely something to see…..
And for another hero’s exodus, catch “The Tempest” at SDSU. Playing Prospero, the wizard who lays down his magic, long-time faculty member Michael Harvey makes his final exit — into retirement. May it be a triumphal march.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.