Verdi’s Aïda is opera at its grandest: a large-scale operatic spectacle in four acts, composed for a huge chorus and orchestra with principal characters who must possess voices that can be heard over the full fortissimo of the entire ensemble. Add massive five- or six-story sets to represent the immensity of the Egyptian pyramids, sometimes propped with real elephants and live horses, plus a full corps de ballet, and you have a production not just of epic size but also of monumental cost. None but the largest opera companies in the world can enter that arena.
So… what can a local company do, on a small budget, if they want to share this music with an audience? The first step for Linda Jackson and LA Metropolitan Opera was to use a performance venue that already contains some features of ancient architecture.
All Souls Chapel at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles offers a neoclassical hall with Corinthian columns that frame the sanctuary, with a high, open dome of a ceiling over the altar. Although not Egyptian, it was sufficiently regal and old-world to help the audience imagine a time so long ago that not even cotton had been discovered; a time thousands of years past when there was a culture of rulers who were viewed as gods and a populace which served as their slaves.
Jackson’s second step was to bring in high-quality singers whose voices sounded massive in the hall. Shirley Wang sang the title role of Aïda in a rich, dark, vibrating soprano that communicated all the pathos and drama of Aïda’s tragic circumstances. James Salazar was her Radamés, heroic in the range and brilliance of his tenor line but somewhat standoffish as a lover. Marcela Pan poured forth an elegant, warm mezzo as Amneris, striking in its beauty and purity, lovely to hear in the super-live hall, full of passion and inner torment.
As the King of Egypt, Joel Huanca wore the richest costume of the show, with his deep bass booming and intense. Bass Jeong Sang Lyu gave an authoritative performance as Ramphis, inflexible in his judgements but liquid, penetrating and forthright in his sound. Ralph Cato was a welcome surprise in the part of Amonasro , having come to the production just two weeks before the show. His well-developed character and burnished baritone impressed the audience so much that they roared their approval at his curtain call.
Gretje Angell’s soprano as High Priestess sounded a bit light for the role, but her young voice carried cleanly in the overly resonant hall and her ceremonial dance was a nice change of pace to the drama. Abraham Fabella brought the orchestra to life on a baby grand piano at stage right, never missing an entrance and reliably supporting the singers in the demanding accompaniments. The men’s and women’s choruses sang out boldly, and Rochelle Firestone provided a bright bit of comedy early in the show, in her mimicry of Radames’s triumphant return to Memphis, surrounded by adoring women of the court. The whole company clearly enjoyed performing, transferring their energy and enthusiasm to the audience.
The hard surfaces of the sanctuary floors, ceilings and walls created echoes which detracted from the clarity of the music, although drapes were hung along the aisles on both sides of the sanctuary to muffle them and soften the sound. The drapes also provided concealed spaces which the cast used as backstage areas.
Sets were minimal, derived mainly from existing architecture and a few well-placed palm trees. Costumes did the work of scenery, colorful and clearly Egyptian in style. Gold headdresses, tunics with ornamental collars, and sandals were standard attire for the royal and religious elite; similar but simpler garb sufficed for the Ethiopians who were prisoners of the Egyptians.
All in all, it was a satisfying performance, much more than a concert version of the opera, taking full advantage of the audience’s imagination to fill in the missing pomp and circumstance but providing the full, dramatic sound of great voices in the sanctuary of the All Souls Chapel.
Bravo to this bold company!
This post has been updated to reflect the following corrections:
1) The role of High Priestess was sung by Gretje Anjell, not by Yayra Sanchez.
2) Ralph Cato did not replace Eric Castro, but was retained in advance to cover a date on which Mr. Castro could not perform, due to a prior engagement as soloist with the LA Lawyers Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall.