One's expectations have a lot to do with what one experiences, in performances and in life. I saw Vladimir Horowitz in one of his legendary returns to the performing stage, at Carnegie Hall in, I think, 1974 or 75. I'd read about his famous fussiness and tendency to miniaturize, and that's what I heard. I was young then, so who knows what I might have heard if I hadn't read about him at all? When I attended Madama Butterfly one Saturday afternoon in 2007, I wasn't expecting much, because who expects much of Butterfly? What a thrill, then, to be sandbagged by an incandescent, near-perfect performance from all involved.
Now, the last two runs of Aida at San Francisco Opera were dispiriting affairs, with the wholly inadequate Michele Crider in the title role and, on the last go-round, the dull-as-dishwater Richard Margison as Radames. I can't say I cared much for Patrick Summers's conducting; the only bright spot was the excellent Amneris of Larissa Diadkova (who is coming soon to a Ring cycle near you).
The reviews for SFO's new Aida production were not very encouraging, to the point that I thought seriously about swapping the ticket for Werther. Then I thought, well, how many chances am I going to have to see Dolora Zajick live in one of her signature roles? And a reliable friend reported that the performances she heard, the second of the run, had been just fine, thankyouverymuch.
That was encouraging, and she was right. To start with, the production is a complete hoot, coming as close to camp, or maybe kitsch, as it's possible to get and still keep a straight face. Zandra Rhodes throws great swathes of brilliant color all over the stage, mostly blues, turquoises, and golds, in the costumes, the curtains, the sets. The one exception to all this brightness was the earth-tone costume for Amonasro (Marco Vratogna), who looked, alarmingly, like Genghis Khan, no, Atilla the Hun in Fritz Lang's Die Niebelungen.
The sets are surprisingly minimal and mostly effective; I especially liked the temple scene at the end of Act I and the irising diagonal curtains used to delineate space. About the only place the curtains did not work well was in the tomb scene, where there was little sense of the lovers being entombed, nor was there a stone for Radames to put his shoulder to in a vain attempt at escape.
Oh, yeah, the elephant. The photos on the opera web site don't do it justice, but sfmike at Civic Center got a good shot of it at the ballpark broadcast last Friday. The colors are washed out - check the opera's photo page to get a better sense of them - but you can see the elephant well enough.
The down side of the production: poor directing from Jo Davies. Sorry! A lot of standing around and singing, little interaction, none of it at all interesting. This is what I imagine opera productions of the 1920s to have been like.
The musical side was mostly well done. Nicola Luisotti is very much in his element here, and did all sorts of interesting things with the score, bringing out the counterpoint and beautiful scoring, supporting the singers, and conducting with both grandeur and flexibility. Try to catch one of his performances, if you can; Giuseppe Finzi won't be nearly as good, based on having heard his Fanciulla del West over the summer.
In the smaller roles, Christian van Horn shone as the King of Egypt. They should have swapped him in for Hao Jiang Tian, who sounded wooly and woofy as Ramfis, and gotten Philip Skinner in for the King. This was half a surprise: Tian never sounded very good to me on Met broadcasts, then sounded great as Chang the Coffinmaker in the disastrous Bonesetter's Daughter two years ago. Maybe Stewart Wallace hit his vocal sweet spot, maybe I caught him on a good day. But I would have liked more of van Horn, less of Tian. David Lomelli's brief turn as the Messenger was not good; the role lies too low for him and he, too, sounded uncharacteristically wooly.
I hope the opera can find a couple of baritones better in Verdi than Dmitri Hvorostovsky (wrong kind of voice, too wooden in general) and Vratogna, who sang Iago last season. Vratogna has a short top, shouts and pounds the line, can't maintain a good legato. Please, someone else.
Micaela Carosi was better than I'd expected, based on her O patria mia from last spring in London - with Luisotti - but but but. She was weirdly inconsistent in the performance I saw, at her best singing full out in the concerted numbers and, sometimes, in the quieter moments. I can't tell if it's lack of technique or lack of confidence, or both, leading to variable control. She was reasonably effective, certainly a big improvement over the inadequate Crider, but can't anybody sing this role well??
Marcello Giordani, making his role debut, did very, very well, turning in a good, solid Radames, well-sung and reasonably consistent, though he won't make you forget Caruso or Martinelli or Bergonzi. He has a healthy, well-placed tone, and will very likely improve in the role over time.
Best for last: has there ever been a better Amneris than Dolora Zajick?? This is a role for the history books. She has it all: a splendid voice still in superb condition at age 58, after a quarter-century of singing the most wearing roles in the repertory, stupendous dynamic control, immense volume and immense delicary when called for, tremendous authority. A subtle singer she's not, but this isn't a subtle opera or a subtle role. What I would give to hear an Aida with a quartet of singers as good as she is. Yes, she is worth the price of admission.