Sunday, May 10, 2015

Concert Review: A celestial 'Aida' by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

"Aida" at Powell Hall / Eddie Silva
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Robertson
What: Verdi's "Aida"
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: May 7 and 9, 2015

[Find out more about the music with the SLSO program notes and my preview.]

In the hands of a lesser composer, "Aida" might have been a classic potboiler—cheap yard goods written on commission and quickly forgotten. But Verdi was a thoroughgoing man of the theatre with a keen sense of what worked on stage. Moreover, by the time he wrote "Aida" in 1870 he was a mature artist with a string of hits to his credit. The result is a work, in the words of British opera scholar Julian Budden, "in which the various elements—grandeur, exotic pictorialism, and intimate poetry—are held in perfect equilibrium and from which not a single note can be cut."

If you want to see for yourself just how right Mr. Budden was, hie yourself down to Powell Hall this weekend to see and hear the remarkable concert version of "Aida" being presented by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the impeccable direction of David Robertson. Distinguished by virtuoso performances from the orchestra and Amy Kaiser's splendid chorus and an international cast of strong singers—most of whom are also respectable actors—this is an "Aida" that demonstrates that great opera is also great musical theatre.

"Aida," as Mr. Budden says, has it all: romance, treachery, tragedy, and a stunning Act II finale complete with offstage brass, ballet music, and what Shakespeare's Othello (in his famous "farewell to arms" speech) called the "[p]ride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war." The final scene—in which the doomed lovers Aida and Radamès slowly expire in a sealed tomb while Amneris bitterly regrets her part in their destruction and the offstage chorus sings a hymn to "immenso Ftha"—is a brilliantly conceived coup de theatre, calculated to bring a lump to the most stoic of throats.

Antonello Polombi
Well, it did to mine, anyway.

The cast for this production is headed by soprano Lucrecia García and tenor Antonello Palombi as the doomed lovers Aida and Radamès. Mr. Palombi was clearly the most intensely focused actor in this cast, completely in character as soon as he walked on stage. You could see his concentration in little things, like the way he stayed "in the moment" for a beat or two after he cut off that high A at the end of "Celeste Aida," or the way he reacted to what other characters were doing even when he wasn't in focus.

He also displayed that rich, powerful voice that has gotten him rave reviews elsewhere in the past. Reviewing his Manrico in Seattle back in 2010, for example, the Opera Warhorses blog praised the "strength and beauty" of his voice, dubbing him "a true tenore di forza" (the "dramatic tenor" Verdi said was required for his leading roles). I'd have to agree. Even in the overly reverberant acoustic fog of Powell Hall's upper reaches, he came through loud and clear.

Lucrecia Garcia
Ms. Garcia's Aida was more dramatically restrained but still entirely compelling. Her "Ritorna vincitor" was right on the dramatic money and her death scene with Mr. Palombi, as noted, was truly moving. She, too, has the kind of precision and gravity-defying vocal power needed to fill a big hall. Reviewing her Odabella in the Teater an der Wien's production of Verdi's Attila back in 2013 for, Chanda VanderHart accurately described her as having "a color and metal to her tone reminiscent of a young Leontyne Price"—a telling comparison, given that Ms. Price (who retired from the stage in 1985) was one of the great Aidas of her time.

Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk also turned in an exciting performance as Amneris, whose insane jealousy destroys the lives of everyone—hers included. Like Mr. Palombi, she is always in character and always credible. She has a powerhouse of a voice, with an appropriately rich and dark bottom and solid top notes.

Basses Alexander Vinogradov and Soloman Howard bring impressive gravitas to the roles of the High Priest Ramfis and the Pharaoh, respectively. Soprano Sarah Price makes a strong impression as the High Priestess and tenor Dennis Wilhoit, while not quite in the same vocal league as the rest of the cast, is nevertheless and excellent Messenger.

As Aida's father Amonsasro, King of Ethiopia, baritone Gordon Hawkins is vocally impressive, with an opulent voice that projects well, but (at least of Thursday night) seemed not to be acting the part at all. Even in the Act III duet "Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamente," where he's excoriating Aida and reminding her of the horrors inflicted on Ethiopia by the Egyptians, his only emotional setting appeared to be "stolid."

Amy Kaiser
Amy Kaiser's chorus displayed that mix of power, finesse, and precise diction that I have come to expect of them over the years. Their singing in the big triumphal scene that concludes Verdi's Act II was thrilling, of course, but their offstage work in the final moments of the last act was equally impressive.

The musicians of the SLSO performed heroically here. With intermission, "Aida" runs just over three hours, so it requires a lot of stamina as well as skill. It got both on Thursday night, along with some fine work by individual players to whom Verdi has given some notable solos. That included (among others) Principal Harp Allegra Lilly at various points in the first act; Principal Flute Mark Sparks and fellow flautists Jennifer Nichtman and Ann Choomack in the dance of the priestesses from I,2; and Tzuying Huang on bass clarinet during Amneris' aria at the top of Act IV. The offstage brass during Act II were also very effective.

Mr. Robertson pulls all this together in a wonderfully nuanced interpretation, with generally quite good balances between the orchestra and vocalists. If the latter were at times overwhelmed, it was more a matter of Powell Hall's acoustics than anything else. His tempi for some of the ballet sequences would probably have been too brisk for live dancers, but in a concert setting like this one they worked just fine and were exciting to hear.

S. Katy Tucker's video projections on the back and sides of the stage were a major asset when creating virtual scenery like the stunning Temple of Vulcan in I,2 (complete with remarkably realistic flaming torches) or the exterior of the royal palace in II, 2. They also provided nicely synchronized animation to accompany those ballet sequences.

They were, however, more of a detriment when they pulled focus from the singers—which they did far too often. When Radamès is singing about wanting to build Aida a throne next to the sun ("un trono vicino al sol"), we really don't need to see animated sunbeams any more than we need to see blooming flowers when, in II,2, the women of the chorus sing of crowning Radamès' brow with lotus and laurel. And we certainly don't need an animated eye looking back and forth between singers. Less gilding of the visual lily would have been more effective.

The St. Louis Symphony's celestial "Aida" brought the regular concert season to a splendid close. For ticket information on other SLSO events:

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