In the first of three performances that the Pacific Symphony is giving at Segerstrom Concert Hall as part of its annual foray into opera, Verdi’s “Aida” seemed awfully dated and lumbering to this listener (Thursday, Feb. 23). Much of the work’s effect, of course, depends upon pageantry and atmosphere. In a recording, the mind’s eye creates these. On stage in an opera house, the scenic designers and animal trainers do. The Pacific Symphony’s “semi-staged” version, though, might have been the worst of both worlds, a suggestion of pageantry that fell short of evoking it. We might have been better off blindfolded.
One wants to give semi-stagings the benefit of the doubt, to go with it, as it were, but director Mary Birnbaum’s decision to set the entire play in a giant sandbox — yes, a sandbox; Egypt is a desert, in case you hadn’t heard — seemed a miscalculation from the start. Miniature sandcastle pyramids and a sphinx dotted the landscape, destroyed by soldiers/brats as they went off to war. Between scenes, there was even some raking, as if the previous events had been some kind of lyrical bunker shot. In a director’s note, Birnbaum stated that sometimes “our greatest task in this world is to figure out how to share the sandbox.” Oh. Dear.
As the captive Ethiopian princess, South African soprano Kelebogile Besong, already gainfully employed by Europe’s secondary houses, was making her North American debut. It’s an attractive and ample voice, luxurious on top and dulcet at softer dynamics. At louder dynamics, though, she had a tendency to scoop notes and approximate the pitch. Her Radamès, Arnold Rawls, skirted the line, as tenors so often do, between belting and bawling, but one had to admire his crisp fortitude.
Orange County’s own Milena Kitic sounded resplendent as Amneris, her high notes stinging but never strident, her bearing dignified and sympathetic. Mark Delavan — a memorable Flying Dutchman at long lost Opera Pacific — brought distinction and crisp diction to the part of Amonasro. Philip Skinner provided an eloquent King of Egypt and Julian Close a booming, gravelly Ramfis. The Pacific Chorale, ensconced in the choral terrace in formal wear, sang like gangbusters.
The costumes are generally ersatz-Egyptian à la MGM, circa 1950. Ditto the choreography. One half expected Susan Hayward and Victor Mature to show up. The lighting designer, or someone, made a quirky choice: when a singer expressed an interior thought (shown in parentheses in the supertitles), the lighting highlighted him or her and dimmed elsewhere. This resulted in some quick flashing now and then.
The Pacific Symphony, all in black, was spread across the stage in the back, no risers, conducted by Carl St.Clair. With singers and chorus going full blazes, the full orchestra, much bigger than most pit bands, could turn the sound into a fortissimo blur. Otherwise, St.Clair led a straightforwardly phrased and succinctly motivated reading. Incidentally, Nick Eanet, formerly of the Juilliard String Quartet and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, served as concertmaster, as the orchestra continues its search for a replacement of Raymond Kobler.
So, a mixed night at the opera. Glad to have any, in our opera-deprived zone. But maybe less sand next time.