- Vancouver Opera
- On Saturday in Vancouver
- Reviewed by Andrea Warner
In closing its season with the “grandest of grand” operas, Vancouver Opera is taking a calculated risk: stumble under the weight of Giuseppe Verdi’s beloved Aida or triumph over its epic tale of doomed love across enemy lines.
The lengthy standing ovation following opening night on Saturday proved that the company’s gamble paid off – for the most part.
The production begins unevenly, both despite and because of the extraordinary power of Morris Robinson. As Ramfis, the high priest, Robinson’s bass is so deep and assured it’s as if a vibration goes through the audience every time he opens his mouth. Arnold Rawls as Radames, the Egyptian army captain, doesn’t have the same command. His tenor sounds thin throughout the earliest scenes that attempt to establish Radames as a noble warrior and lover. Eventually Rawls’ finds his footing and digs into the role with relish, rising to the intense vocal challenges presented in Acts III and IV.
The women, Mlada Khudoley and Daveda Karanas, are gloriously gifted as Aida, the Ethiopian prisoner (and secret princess), and Amneris, the Egyptian princess, respectively. As mismatched rivals for Radames’ heart – Aida having the upper hand despite being Amneris’ servant – it’s fascinating to see how Karanas reveals Amneris’ unhinged longing, allowing a steely hint of madness to permeate her mezzo-soprano.
Khudoley conveys Aida’s unending turmoil with great beauty. Her voice is remarkable, and it’s put to the test in Act III when Aida’s forced to betray her beloved Radames, lest her father disown her. As the Ethiopian King, Quinn Kelsey’s presence is both suitably royal and paternal. He’s particularly effective as he shames Aida for turning her back on her country, his words invoking the spirit of her dead mother made all the more resonant by his booming baritone.
When Radames realizes the extent of Aida’s betrayal, the devastation is real: Aida flees and Radames is sentenced to death. But only when Amneris begs Radames to renounce Aida does the incredible trick of Verdi’s writing reveal itself. The declarations of love between Aida and Radames carry little weight. After all, they’re just words. The opera’s legendary romance comes out of sacrifice: Radames would rather die than accept Amneris’ offer, and the scene is an incredible showcase for both singers.
While many individual moments stand out, they don’t call Aida a grand opera for nothing. It’s big, bold and opulent, much like the ancient Egypt in which it’s set. When the entire cast comes together, all under the masterful eye of director David Gately, it’s nothing short of electrifying, particularly at the end of Act II as Egypt celebrates its victory over Ethiopia. The story arcs converge in a messy apex as the sprawling company crescendos to a roar, creating a palpable buzz throughout intermission.
But eight principal singers, 12 dancers, 35 extras, 60 choristers, and an orchestra of 64 make for a crowded, busy production, meaning a few things that should have been dealt with in dress rehearsal make it to stage. For instance, the large-scale victory celebration after Egypt defeats Ethiopia features countless soldiers marching out of time. The few who do fall in line highlight the imprecision of their counterparts.
And while set designer Roberto Oswald has crafted some truly impressive, large-scale replicas of iconographic Egyptian landmarks, costume designer Anibal Lapiz’s occasional use of gold lamé fabric jarringly recalls ’70s disco rather than ancient times. In contrast, the dresses he’s created for Aida are stunningly beautiful, and he injects a wonderful amount of Amneris’ personality into the character’s bold garments.
The orchestra, superb under conductor Jonathan Darlington, has to share some of the burden for Rawls’ disappointing first act, drowning out his voice several times in the opening 20 minutes. But the combative nature between the pit and the singers mellows into something beautifully copacetic after the initial rough patch, so perhaps it won’t be an issue in the remaining performances.
These are niggling details for only the fussiest among us to dwell on, but it’s a luxury Aida affords its audience by falling just shy of masterpiece status.
Special to The Globe and Mail.
Vancouver Opera’s Aida plays at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre at 7.30 p.m. Tuesday, April 24; Thursday, April 26; Saturday, April 28; Tuesday, May 1; Thursday, May 3.