Frequently announced — by any number of hopeful producers in any number of venues — and almost as frequently canceled, Verdi’s grandest of grand operas, unseen in Los Angeles for 36 years, finally made it to a local stage to inaugurate the Los Angeles Opera’s first season under the newly installed artistic direction of you-know-who. Was the company’s first-ever “Aida” worth the wait? Close enough.
First and foremost, the night belonged to Placido Domingo — not as Aida’s beloved Radames (although in his time it was a role he seemed born to sing), but as conductor of his L.A. Opera Orchestra and Chorus, which offered a beautifully fluid, spirited and responsive performance. Even on an opening night, the balances were to marvel at: the spooky offstage choruses, the extra stage trumpets during the Triumphal March, the sinuous incantations of Cyntha Jansen’s High Priestess in the temple scene.
The production of Verdi’s Egypt-set tale of romance, deception and treason around a war between Egyptians and Ethiopians also belongs in the catalog of the night’s marvels. This staging reps the first local viewing of the work of Italian stage designer Pier-Luigi Pizzi, and the set beautifully reflects Pizzi’s flair for etched, monumental lines and forms, handsomely highlighted in sharply contrasting colors, with a couple of proscenium-high elephants for extra laughs.
First built in 1987 to inaugurate Houston’s Wortham Opera Center, the production has been around, and a seam or two attests to that; as starkly defined in Alan Burrett’s lighting designs, however, this is a handsome, up-to-date “Aida” setting, free of overstuffed traditional encrustations.
Those latter qualities were, alas, abundantly evident in Stephen Pickover’s blocky staging, and in the traditional hootchy-kootch of Daniel Pelzig’s choreography of the opera’s oversupply of dance episodes — except, that is, for one terrific acrobatic number in the act two celebrations.
Given an Aida of, shall we say, not-quite-sylphlike proportions, and a Radames of matching ponderosity, Pickover may have had no choice but to limit his stage movements to the old-timey stand-and-deliver manner; still, the discrepancy was hard to ignore.
Singing ranged, for the most part, from adequate to OK. For all of Deborah Voigt’s fine work as a Wagnerian, including a recent disc with Domingo, her Aida seemed strangely pale, drained of the passion and sorrow in one of Verdi’s most appealing roles. South African tenor Johan Botha brought forth a Radames of similar stature, with a few extraneous gulps along the way. Russian mezzo Nina Terentieva began unsteadily, but reached something close to eloquence in the Trial Scene, while veteran bass-baritone Simon Estes, as Aida’s father, brought a thread of eloquence to a voice which has seen much use. Voigt, Botha and Estes were new to the company.
More to the point, “Aida” itself was also new to the company. Its arrival in the L.A. Opera’s 15th season, even with a tatter here and there, is long overdue.