Reviewed by Judy Richter
The San Francisco Opera is wrapping up its 1996-97 season with a vocally uneven production of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. While lesser roles are well-sung, the two central singers, both making their SFO debuts, have shortcomings.
American soprano Michèle Crider emitted such harsh, out-of-control sounds during her initial scenes at the Feb. 9 opening that it seemed the audience was in for an uncomfortably long night. Crider did improve in subsequent scenes, but not enough to merit her return any time soon.
She has an excessive vibrato that adversely affects her intonation, her high notes have a sharp edge, and her control wavers at volumes above mezzo-forte. Although she can produce some lovely tones in her middle and low range and at lower volumes, she can't seem to sustain a pianissimo, thus diluting dramatic effect.
Her Radames was Italian tenor Walter Fraccaro, filling in for Fabio Armiliato, who was ill. Fraccaro, who was already scheduled to sing three subsequent performances, has a pleasant enough voice, though perhaps a bit light for the role. His acting, however, is limited to a few stock gestures, and he doesn't carry himself well enough to command the stage. Furthermore, there is no chemistry between him and Crider.
Hence, the production loses the opera's central focus on Radames' terrible conflict between loyalty to Egypt and love for Aida, an enslaved princess of Ethiopia, Egypt's enemy.
Russian mezzo-soprano Nina Terentieva lends dramatic credibility to Amneris, the Egyptian princess who loves Radames but realizes that Aida is her rival for his affections. Her voice is dark and her lower register somewhat harsh.
Unlike Crider and Fraccaro, Italian bass Francesco Ellero d'Artegna makes a welcome SFO debut as Ramfis, the high priest. D'Artegna has a commanding presence and a solid, well-focused voice throughout his range, making for a satisfying performance.
American baritone Timothy Noble, who has often distinguished himself in San Francisco, lends authority, dignity and passion to Amonasro, Aida's father and Ethiopia's captured king. Despite some graininess in his voice, Noble brings needed energy and focus to the role as well as the production.
American bass Chester Patton as the King of Egypt gives his best SFO performance yet. Patton, a product of the San Francisco Opera Center's training programs, has always sung with a rich, fluid tone, but it lacked the heft needed to fill a large house. Now that he's maturing, though, his voice is gaining power and the ability to project without losing finesse. The fact that he's tall and slim works in his favor dramatically. In this case, he looks kingly.
Another Opera Center product, American soprano Nicolle Foland, produces the production's most beautiful singing as the offstage voice of a priestess. It's unfortunate that she doesn't get to take a bow during the curtain call.
Also unacknowledged during the curtain call is Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus, which is another plus in this production. While the Triumphal Chorus is thrilling in its grandeur, the quieter, more intimate Temple scene provides an equal measure of thrills with its pianissimo passages to minimal accompaniment. Aficionados of choral music may especially admire the solid foundation of the bass notes in the men's passages.
SFO Music Director Donald Runnicles conducts the SFO Orchestra on a platform above and behind the stage. As has been the case all season, the sound is somewhat muffled, and coordination between singers and orchestra can be a problem, though not as much in some previous productions.
Wolfram Skalicki's set is fairly minimalist with staircases on both sides and at the center. That center staircase moves forward and pivots to heighten the drama.
For Act 3, Scene 1, set on the banks of the Nile, the river is represented by a wide swatch of blue fabric that drapes from the ceiling on the left, cascades down the left staircase and extends nearly to the right apron. While this device works well visually, it's disconcerting that several characters blithely walk across it as if it weren't there.
Otherwise production director Paula Williams moves the singers judiciously and directs traffic well during the Triumphal scene with its 248 bodies onstage. Notes to the press say that Williams was involved in all elements of the staging, including the choreography, right from the start. It says she wanted the choreography to avoid "ballet cliches.''
If that phrase means avoidance of traditional ballet, Donald Byrd's choreography does so. The dancing seems inspired by hieroglyphics, resulting in angular arm positions and often contorted movements, apparently aimed at preserving the two-dimensional effect. A few more "ballet clichés'' would be more pleasing to the eye, though.
Costumes, designed by Lawrence Casey with additional costumes by Thierry Bosquet, mostly come from the 1981 production, according to the press notes. They're quite handsome and colorful except for some outlandish head gear seemingly inspired by Star Trek or Beach Blanket Babylon.
Taken on the whole, this production has little to cheer about, especially vocally. It should be noted, however, that the Feb. 13, 16 and 21 performances have an entirely different cast (except for Fraccaro, who was already scheduled for those dates), featuring American soprano Marquita Lister in the title role.
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