Zambello’s Aida Offers Rare Look Into Opera’s Heart

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The Triumphal Scene of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ in a new production directed by Francesca Zambello at San Francisco Opera.
(Production photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

By Janos Gereben

SAN FRANCISCO – Even across a distance of four decades, the memory of Leonard Bernstein’s musical insight and charming theatricality remains vividly in mind, prompted especially by the opening performance on Nov. 5 of a new San Francisco Opera production of Verdi’s Aida in the War Memorial Opera House. This premiere was a co-production with Washington National Opera, Seattle Opera, and Minnesota Opera, to be performed later at the other venues.

Ekaterina Semenchuk, top, is Amneris and Leah Crocetto is Aida.

Ekaterina Semenchuk, top, is Amneris and Leah Crocetto is Aida.

The Bernstein flashback came from the last of his Norton Lectures at Harvard, “The Poetry of the Earth,” which he began by playing a few notes from the “phony Egyptian ballet music” of Aida. Then he stopped and asked if the audience thought he had gone mad playing this excerpt at a lecture about Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

He then went on to sing (yes) the Aida-Amneris duet, translating and explaining the text all at the same time, questioning what constitutes sincerity in music, and finally — about 90 minutes later — exclaiming in triumph that the “power of the unconscious” revealed to him the reason for connecting Verdi and Stravinsky.

They both deal with  the confrontation of  “the power and the pity,” Bernstein explained, singing (an octave lower than a mezzo would) as a desperate Aida, begging Amneris: “You are mighty, and all I have is this love… Spare my despairing heart.” Bernstein’s message: More than the spectacle, the human drama is the key to both Aida and Oedipus Rex.

There is such potential musical-dramatic depth to Verdi’s opera, rarely realized, but in San Francisco, director Francesca Zambello clearly aimed for it, writing in the program notes: “Aida is part of the fabric of my being. I first experienced it with huge forces, but as I have come to work on it many times as an adult, I realized it is actually a chamber piece with a huge Triumphal Scene parked in the middle of the story.”

Zambello attempted to differentiate her “bold new production” — as the marketing calls it — from a massive tradition: the 34th series of Aida performances since 1925 in San Francisco, more than 1,100 performances at the Metropolitan Opera since the 1886 premiere in New York, and countless appearances around the world. (In the War Memorial alone, Aida lore includes the 1928 Radames of Edward Johnson, who later became the Met’s general manager; the 1935 Amonasro of Nelson Eddy; and U.S. debuts by Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco. (A shining example of “the show must go on” is the San Francisco Aida, which opened on schedule a mere four days after the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in a hastily readied Masonic Auditorium.)

How then does the new production try to be distinct in the warhorse derby? Using much-advertised but inconsequential calligraphic art from graffiti artist RETNA on Michael Yeargan’s unusually sparse sets, Zambello moved the opera from its traditional ancient setting to an unspecified modern environment, perhaps the time of the work’s 1871 world premiere in Cairo. The curtain rises on a busy scene of officers in Anita Yavich’s 19th-century British-Egyptian uniforms discussing military matters over campaign maps.

In a small but insightful touch, Zambello has some of the officers stare at Radames as he is neglecting the maps to sing about his love for Aida (“Celeste Aida”), unheard by those on stage, but obviously distracted from the business at hand. Instead of the traditional suspension of disbelief in which, until the opera’s climactic finale, only Amneris suspects the all-too-obvious romance between the Egyptian general and the Ethiopian slave princess, the director here opts for at least an indication that not everybody in the king’s palace and the temple of Ptah is blind to what the audience sees.

Jessica Lang's ballet choreography is the main ingredient in Triumphal Scene.

Jessica Lang’s gymnastic ballet choreography is featured in the Triumphal Scene.

In a debatable bow to retroactive political correctness, Zambello — as publicity states — “universalizes” the story by referring in the supertitles to Aida and her people as “foreigners” instead of Ethiopians, and “prisoners” instead of slaves. As the opera unfolds, the production adds colorful costumes for women in the court and interesting attire for priests and priestesses, with an unfortunate decision to use military uniforms for the dancers in Jessica Lang’s gymnastic ballet scenes — one of which is the main ingredient of the Triumphal scene. (I, for one, felt a bit nostalgic for the last San Francisco production, with Zandra Rhodes’ enormous butterfly-elephant hovering over the march.) Rachel Little is the prominent solo dancer, but why she is both abused and exalted as, presumably, Aida’s fellow slave — no, prisoner — makes little sense either as ballet or in the context of the opera.

The upshot of the combination of what Verdi and Zambello hath wrought here is a mostly fair-to-middling first half (Acts 1 and 2 performed together) and a frequently Bernstein-grade exciting and satisfying second half of Acts 3 and 4, in a three-hour performance, including intermission.

Dare one impugn the might of Papa Verdi? Commission requirements from the Egyptian government, the usual demand for a profusion of ballet scenes, the simple need to set up the story, and that “Triumphal Scene” parked there combine to weaken the first half. Then the dramatically and musically superior confrontations, the “human element,” and drama beyond the spectacle lift the second half to a higher plateau. At least, that was the outcome of the premiere, even from the pit of a hard-working San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by music director Nicola Luisotti.

Luisotti at first alternated between phrasing quiet passages slowly or tentatively, then tried to inject energy into the score with faster tempi and more volume. The orchestral performance did not fully reach authentic and consistent sound until the last two acts. To the conductor’s credit, however, he supported the singers at all times, using the orchestra properly as a mighty accompanist. Kudos to the six onstage trumpets and the backstage banda for flawless playing throughout.

Lovers: Crocetto and Brian Jagde made role debuts as Aida and Radames.

Lovers: Leah Crocetto and Brian Jagde are making role debuts as Aida and Radames.

As was true for the entire performance, even the quality of singing picked up as the evening continued, “home-grown” young talent in two major role debuts building their performances: Leah Crocetto (Merola Opera Program 2008, Adler Fellow 2009-11) as Aida and Brian Jagde (Merola 2009, Adler 2010-12) as Radames with big, well-projected voices, convincingly dealing with the challenge of a 3,200-seat hall. Their stage presence was more than sufficient, even if  chemistry between them was mostly missing. Jagde fulfilled the role’s dual demand for both lyrical and heroic voices, showing promise for a future heldentenor career.

Vocal splendor came from Ian Robertson’s San Francisco Opera Chorus, which provided a solid, powerful sound regardless of its  numbers or positioning; at one point, the chorus faces upstage, away from the audience, and still its phrasing and diction were exceptional.

Raymond Aceto sings Ramfis

Raymond Aceto sings impressively as Ramfis.

Casting — the work of Zambello, current and former SFO general directors Matthew Shilvock and David Gockley — is emphatic on the employment of young singers beyond Crocetto and Jagde. Current Adler Fellows shine: Anthony Reed’s King of Egypt, Toni Marie Palmertree’s Priestess (the offstage role launching a legion of careers, including those of Janis Martin, Carol Vaness, Dolora Zajick, and Crocetto herself), and in a most impressive two-line performance, Pene Pati as the Messenger. In the limited but important role of Amonasro, George Gagnidze sang impressively. So did Raymond Aceto as Ramfis.

As Amneris, the formidable Ekaterina Semenchuk conformed to the first-part/second-part arc of the evening, singing unexceptionally at first (even in the crucial duet with Aida), then rising to the occasion brilliantly in the two finals acts. Semenchuk, Crocetto, and Jagde were at their best in the tragic final scene, even against the production error of having the entire empty stage substituting for what should be a claustrophobic tomb. Amneris’ head appears floating above the darkness, evoking audience titters, even as Semenchuk sings the parting “Pace… pace… pace.” Traditional staging with a small, suffocating enclosure for the lovers, with Amneris standing outside, makes much more sense.

Janos Gereben has written for the New York Herald-Tribune, Time-Life, UPI, Detroit Free Press, and for San Francisco Classical Voice since its founding in 1998.  

Date posted: November 9, 2016

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