Night at the Opera
Cairo syrup: Thrilling arias can’t sweeten Dallas Opera’s slow Aïda
Like the Great Pyramids, Dallas Opera’s 2012-13 season opener, Aïda, remains solidly rooted in the sands of time. The production directed by Garnett Bruce and conducted by Graeme Jenkins feels like a museum piece, so static that the performers appear to move in slow motion, when they move at all.
Despite some thrilling singing and acting by the leading ladies — American soprano Latonia Moore in the title role and Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva as her rival, Amneris — the four-act Aïda needs a sharp kick in the asp to get it going.
For decades now, musical theater has been edging toward the operatic. See Phantom, Les Miz and Sweeney Todd for examples of hit musicals that play as sung-through pieces.
Despite some thrilling singing and acting by the leading ladies, the four-act Aïda needs a sharp kick in the asp to get it going.
But grand opera might be more grandly entertaining if it adopted some of musical theater’s traditional style, including speeding up the scene changes (things come to a dead halt for that in Aïda) and using the chorus and “supernumeraries” (opera’s word for “extras”) as more than breathing statues in the background. (New York Times critic Antony Tommasini makes an argument for blending styles too.)
The huge stage at the Winspear Opera House is heavily populated for this production: 39 supers wearing a wide array of ornate Egyptian headgear (costumes by the late designer Peter J. Hall), dancers from the Chicago Festival Ballet, brass players, and choristers. But except for some stiff ballet steps by the blank-faced dancers (choreography by Kenneth von Heidecke), they all barely budge.
When the guys playing slaves have to stand frozen in place holding spears during 10-minute arias, one begins to fret about the circulation to their limbs.
Opera’s core fans — the audience at Sunday’s matinee was over-represented by the older-than-dirt demographic — may resist sexing up their favorite works with tighter pacing and more expressive acting. But to garner new admirers, Dallas Opera will have to reach some of that younger crowd who think the best or only Aïda is the one composed not by Giuseppe Verdi but by Elton John and Tim Rice.
Kudos to Nadia Krasteva, who towers over Antonello Palombi even without her upside-down-bucket Nefertiti hat, for being even halfway believable pining for this little Radames.
Both tell the same story of a love triangle involving Ethiopian princess Aïda; her boyfriend and valiant army captain Radames; and the other woman obsessed with him, Egyptian princess and ultimate mean girl Amneris. When she’s rejected by Radames, Amneris conspires to have him tried as a traitor. (The trial scene would be so much better if it didn’t happen offstage, while nothing whatsoever is happening onstage.)
Sentenced to be buried alive in an underground vault, Radames accepts his fate, not realizing until he’s entombed that his beloved Aïda has joined him for a tragic Romeo-and-Juliet ending.
Besides its sands-through-the-hourglass slowness, this Aïda also suffers from a lack of oomph in its casting of Italian tenor Antonello Palombi as Radames. Attractive and hot, he’s not. He’s old, fat and short and bears a startling resemblance to John Belushi's Blutarsky in Animal House.
Kudos to Krasteva, who towers over Palombi even without her upside-down-bucket Nefertiti hat, for being even halfway believable pining for this hairy little Radames. Houston-born Moore also summons lots of lusty looks for him and provides the opera’s best moment with her heavily emoted aria wishing him well in battle, “Ritorna vincitor” (“Return a conquerer”).
Moore is a gorgeous soprano, hitting notes that glisten with crystal clarity even over the roar of the big crowd scenes. She made headlines earlier this year when she stepped into the role of Aïda at the Metropolitan Opera with less than a day’s notice, taking over for an ailing Violeta Urmana. She’s also sung the part at Covent Garden and at the Hamburg State Opera.
Moore’s star status is gaining momentum, slowed only slightly by Dallas Opera’s plodding journey down the Nile.