Operagasm Exclusive Review: Virginia Opera’s Aïda
by Elizabeth Mattox
(Wednesday, October 5 – Norfolk, Virginia) Any time an opera house decides to take on such a large-scale production as Aïda, it deserves a few nods and Virginia Opera certainly makes a valiant effort at their first attempt.
After the lights in Harrison Opera house dimmed, a brilliant, round moon appeared on stage with the silhouette of a large winged creature opening and closing its wings to the first notes of Verdi’s prelude from his masterpiece Aïda. As the lights slowly came on, I saw a set of brick panels cleverly designed to move easily and create different sizes of pyramids able to depict an indoor or outdoor setting for different scenes in the opera. I settled in my seat and marveled at the sight which truly got one’s mind into the setting of ancient Egypt and the ruling of the Pharaohs and prepared myself for an anticipated evening of powerful music when suddenly several exposed violins went flat for a phrase or two. I hoped that wasn’t an indication as to how the rest of the opera would go so I told myself that the orchestra was just getting settled and perhaps someone moved an elbow to get comfortable.
Fortunately, the orchestra did seem to gel after that and conductor John deMain did a fine job at keeping everyone together and following the principles in arias and ensembles. However, it took much of the cast the entire first half of the opera to get vocally warmed up and into character. For example, in Radames (sung by Gustavo Lopez Manzitti) first aria Celeste Aïda, in which he sings of being a warrior and his love for Aïda, his strong tenor voice musically couldn’t break away from the warrior aspect of the recitative to convince us of being a man in love. This was also evident in his stiff facial expressions and movement on stage.
Completely the opposite though was Jeniece Goldbourne’s powerful portrayal as the two-faced, conniving Amneris. Her warm, silvery mezzo-soprano voice was a cut above the rest and completely fitting for the role. Consistently resonant whether in chest or head voice, she could always be heard over the orchestra. Whether daydreaming about Radames or placidly tricking poor Aïda, she was able to evoke many different sentiments about one character: One minute I hated her, but the next I felt sorry for her unrequited love. The only element that took away from her presence on stage was the Christmas ornament-like, gold ribbon catastrophe she was forced to wear adorning her head.
As the opera went on the cast slowly broke out of the mold and into character. In the trio in Act I between Radames, Amneris, and Aïda (Mary Elizabeth Williams), the three voices worked well against each other and effectively brought forth each character’s twisted emotions in their love triangle. In such an important ensemble of the opera though, the orchestra got a bit too loud to hear each individual voice here.
Knowing that it takes a voice with excellent technique and considerable size to sing the role of Aïda, I was surprised at Virginia Opera’s choice in Williams for the title role. The size of the voice was not necessarily the issue because the few times that the stars aligned with her breath support and resonance, a beautiful and powerful tone broke forth. However, this phenomenon was so rare, at least in Wednesday night’s performance, that I question why this particular soprano was chosen. Don’t get me wrong: her phrasing and musicality were evident, especially in pianissimo passages and the ends of phrases, but I wanted more of an anchor in the intense parts of the opera, such as in her duet with Radames in Act III, Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti, when the two make their decision to “flee the burning skies” together. There just wasn’t enough vocal presence in William’s portrayal to effectively counteract Goldbourne’s vocal prowess either.
The chorus on and off stage sounded prepared. The priests and soldiers had enough body in the chorus but I would have liked to have heard a few more sopranos to fill out the top, especially in the finale of Act I. The collaboration with choreographer Malcolm Burn and the The Richmond Ballet dancers added a nice touch to scenes with the entire cast on stage as well.
All in all, this is a good production by Virginia Opera of one of the world’s most beloved operas by a great composer.
Elizabeth Mattox is a native of Richmond, Virginia. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Master of Music degree also in Vocal Performance from Colorado State University. Currently residing in Virginia Beach, VA she maintains a private voice and piano studio there and sings regularly with First Presbyterian Church of Virginia Beach.