Arts & Events

Women Carry the Day in AIDA at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 11, 2016 - 04:43:00 PM

In San Francisco Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Aida, which opened Saturday, November 5, two outstanding women singers, soprano Leah Crocetto as Aida and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris, overcame the drawbacks of a dismal staging by trendy Los Angeles-based artistic designer Marquis Duriel Lewis, who goes by the pseudonym Retna. Director Francesca Zambello tried to make the best of this ill-conceived staging, and Zambello at least managed to inspire the notoriously statue-like Leah Crocetto to move around a bit and throw herself into a credibly dramatic interpretation of the role of Aida. With her sheer physical bulk, Crocetto’s Aida will never be the paragon of feminine beauty extolled by her lover Radames. But to her credit, Ms. Crocetto, who has never sounded better than here as Aida, also gave her very best dramatic performance thus far in her young career.  

Leah Crocetto’s voice is a sumptuous soprano, redolent with rich color. Her high notes were spectacular, delivered with conviction, and her lower register was full of dark tones that suggested her character’s inner turmoil as a prisoner of the Egyptians but a woman in love with Radames, who leads the Egyptians in battle against Aida’s own father, Amonasro, king of the Ethiopians. Leah Crocetto’s “O terra addio” as Aida joined Radames in death by entombment in Act IV was a thing of beauty. 

In the role of Amneris, daughter of Egypt’s pharaoh and a woman also in love with Radames, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk gave a riveting performance, singing with great clarity, especially in Act IV. Particularly noteworthy was Semenchuk’s desperate Act IV dialogue with the dishonored Radames, in which Amneris pleads in vain with Radames to save his life if only he will abandon his love for Aida.  

As Radames, tenor Brian Jagde definitely took third place in this production, ceding pride of place to Crocetto and Semenchuk. While I can’t fault Jagde’s singing on technical grounds, it seems to me that his tenor voice is really not quite suited to the role of Radames. Verdi wrote for tenors with a light color, and Jagde’s tenor is anything but light. In his Act I aria “Celeste Aida,” Jagde sounded almost like a baritone; and this baritone coloration continued throughout Jagde’s portrayal of Radames. When he reached upward for high notes, Jagde sometimes hit pay dirt but at other times sounded a bit thin. His Radames will never bear comparison with a Jon Vickers, a Luciano Pavarotti or a Plácido Domingo. 

Bass Anthony Reed was a credible king of Egypt; bass Raymond Aceto was an ominous High Priest Ramfis; and baritone George Gagnidze was a powerful Amonasro, father of Aida and king of the invading Ethiopians. Interestingly, the Amonasro-Aida relationship offers yet another glimpse at Verdi’s profound interest in father-daughter relations, this one full of conflicting motivations of love and patriotic loyalty. Small roles were admirably performed by soprano Toni Marie Palmertree as a Priestess, and tenor Pene Pati as a Messenger. 

Francesca Zambello’s direction emphasized Egypt as a militarized state, albeit a curiously updated one in which the ever-present soldiers wore vaguely fascist uniforms rather than ancient Egyptian tunics, and Amneris’s circle of women wore incongruous day-glo dresses designed by Anita Yavich. The famous Triumphal March was here highlighted by Jessica Lang’s choreography in which the soldiers tossed a woman high in the air as prelude to a suggested rape scene – a by-product of all wars. Solo dancers Rachel Little and Jekyns Peláez were outstanding. Regarding the set designs, what in the world was supposed to be represented in the Nile banks scene that opens Act III? Supposedly set in or next to a temple of Isis along the river Nile, this scene offered a spotlighted circle that seemed like an oculus, looking outward, but onto what? With the naked eye, I thought maybe it was a geologic outcrop of the Nile cliffs. But when I trained my binoculars on it, there was nothing recognizable at all, a mere abstract blip on the radar screen, with one of Retna’s hieroglyphics mounted on struts in the foreground. This set design offered nothing of relevance to this intimate drama or to its exposure of the ravages of state and religion against the beleaguered individual. Let us hope that San Francisco Opera will swiftly retire this ill-conceived production so we never have to see it again. 

As conductor, Nicola Luisotti led a somewhat languorous reading of Verdi’s score. The San Francisco Opera Chorus led by Ian Robinson delivered a fine rendition of this opera’s many opportunities for choral singing. Set designer was Michael Yeargan; but how much was Yeargan's responsibility and how much was artistic designer Retna’s remains a mystery we would rather not unravel. A plague on both their houses for distracting us from great singing of ravishingly beautiful music. AIDA continues with multiple performances through December 6.