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The Grandeur That Was (Or Might Have Been) Egypt

Finally Aida, worth the wait if not quite worth the weight. The auspices are splendid: the 15th opening night for a company that some had predicted wouldn’t reach its second; the inaugural effort for a new artistic director, and, for him at least, an unqualified success.

Aida is not the grandest of Verdi‘s grandissimo operas; I hold Un Ballo in Maschera as worthier of that acclaim. Still, it has a certain iconic quality above the rest: the archetypal Italian romantic opera, the one that promises both love duet and elephants. In Los Angeles it has been buffeted by the fates to a ludicrous degree since its last real performance here (by the San Francisco Opera in 1964). Often announced, just as often canceled, it has been the toy project of hopeful but hopeless producers. I still have the T-shirt from one press conference announcing an upcoming Aida at the Coliseum; it was held, logically enough, at the Egyptian Theater, and there were a live camel, an elephant and, if memory serves, a giraffe tethered outside.

Our new Aida contents itself with plastic elephants, proscenium-high. The production comes in from Houston, where I saw it in 1987 at the opening of that city’s Wortham Opera Center (followed the next night by the world premiere of Nixon in China -- some weekend!). It shows its age in a tattered seam here and there, but it is nicely lit, and the Nile Scene remains a thing of extraordinary beauty. It is the work of Pier-Luigi Pizzi, the first setting by him to show here; the stark, monumental lines and the imaginative use of verticality are representative of the great Pizzi settings I‘ve seen elsewhere.

Unfortunately, these designs are not well-used at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Perhaps they couldn’t be; given the pair of cubically overendowed leading singers that has been wished upon him, it is probably the better part of valor for director Stephen Pickover to fall back on the old stand-and-deliver blocking that once passed for operatic acting. It does, however, inject a note of dreariness into surroundings that deserve better. Daniel Pelzig‘s choreography fulfills the hootchy-kootch that Verdi’s music, alas, demands (I can never witness an Aida ballet without summoning the name of Albertina Rasch from my earliest moviegoing memories). But this time, at least, there was also a terrific acrobatic moment in the Triumphal Scene, with swords and leaps and gold-lame boxer shorts.

And, oh yes, there is also the singing. I have had reason to admire Deborah Voigt in the past -- her Sieglinde last year in San Francisco, her new EMI disc of Wagner duets with Placido Domingo. But there was no Aida in her voice the other night, no throb or heartbreak, none of the seduction in her duet with Radames that could get people to listen rather than look: loud and pretty in tone, but not the tragic heroine, one of Verdi‘s most powerful creations, whom we have known and been made to love in the past. Her Radames, South Africa’s Johan Botha, was of similar volume (audible and visible). The night was carried, however, by the impressive Amneris of Nina Terentieva -- although, as with her Azucena two years ago, she took a scene or two to find the proper pitch -- and the eloquent Amonasro of Simon Estes.

Eloquent, too, is the word for Domingo‘s musical guidance throughout the long evening -- the best conducting I have yet heard from his baton, a shaping and a pacing formed out of regard for the music itself and for its singers. If Domingo has, indeed, outgrown his splendid Radames of times past -- a role he truly owned not so long ago -- he proved in this most promising performance on the podium that he still has something to contribute to the work itself.

Two nights later came La Cenerentola, opera neither grand nor iconic, but standing tall in its own class and, more to the point, a sheer delight. As Rossini’s comedies go, perhaps The Barber of Seville is subtler, and The Italian Girl in Algiers juicier, but this delirious gloss on the Cinderella story has more bubbles, and the fizz at last week‘s performance was everywhere apparent. I can see purists climbing the walls and screaming “heresy” at Thor Steingraber’s production, and beside his splendid Figaro and CapuletsMontagues, this one is something of a mess -- but an endearing one. The time is everytime; Cinderella‘s rotten sisters sport their Victorian ball gowns around a kitchen table right out of IKEA (perhaps bearing the label “schlumpf”); the chorus, apparently determined to get in everybody’s way, comes bounding out of closets and from under banquet tables. The lighting cues shift constantly, sometimes with every downbeat. Perhaps someone at the L.A. Opera believes in overkill as the way to produce Rossinian comedies; at least compared to the 1996 Italian Girl, this one is positively monastic. In any case, I laughed a lot.

Jennifer Larmore is the Cinderella, splendidly in command of the bristling difficulties that are the delight and the terror of this music. I do find her work somewhat cold; I‘m spoiled by Cecilia Bartoli, who has the command plus the power to enchant. What I miss mostly in Larmore is whatever is encompassed by the term “winsome.” In the mostly American cast, baritones Richard Bernstein and Rodney Gilfry walk off with the honors, as they usually do; tenor Kurt Streit, a little dry of voice, is close behind. The Italian basso buffo Simone Alaimo brings in an alien element in more ways than one; his eyeball-rolling, lip-smacking delivery of his big patter songs is of the old school, where singing the notes as written is of minor importance. Gabriele Ferro’s conducting is merely okay.

So are Riccardo Hernandez‘s sets: a hovel for Cinderella and family, angled like something out of Caligari’s cabinet, a ballroom into which snow is falling -- while the chorus sings of birds. Never mind; Rossini‘s marvelous music transcends mere earthly frailties. I had a ball.


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