With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces. The Khedive’s theater opened with Verdi’s already well-known Rigoletto, and he still did not have a work that was written specifically for Egypt. French Egyptologist Auguste-Edouard Mariette presented the ruler with a scenario for an Egyptian opera that may well have actually been written by a seasoned librettist, and Verdi was contacted. This time not only did the Khedive offer an enormous amount of money, it was also noted that the offer would go to Charles Gounod if Verdi did not accept.
Verdi could not let that happen, so he then agreed to compose the opera for 150, 000 lire. Since Verdi’s choice of a librettist would only receive 20,000 lire, the high price paid the composer becomes obvious. Although the composer would not be required to go to Cairo, he was asked send a representative to oversee the rehearsals and performance. One of the reasons he did not go to Egypt for the premiere was that the entire audience was made up of dignitaries, politicians, and critics. Verdi wrote the title role of Aida for Teresa Stolz, but she did not go to Cairo either. For her and for Verdi, the real opening night was the premiere of Aida at La Scala in Milan on February 8, 1872. Needless to say, both openings were tremendously successful.
On April 23, 2013, San Diego Opera presented Verdi’s Aida in a production originally staged by Jo Davies, but directed in this city by Andrew Sinclair. The colorful and imaginative scenic and costume design was by Zandra Rhodes and the striking wigs by Stephen Bryant. A good Aida production is a grand spectacle. This was no exception and it was truly spectacular right down to the Triumphal Scene’s blue silk elephant! This was one production in which the visual art on the stage was of the same caliber as the excellent singing of some of the world’s finest artists. The only question I had about the scenery had to do with the final scene in the dark tomb. I did not see any structure holding the couple prisoner.
Director Andrew Sinclair added some interesting bits of staging. There was a human sacrifice with some “blood” in the Temple of Vulcan, and Amonasro was stabbed before he could escape to Ethiopia. The Aida, Latonia Moore, had a large enveloping lyric voice with which she floated piannissimi seemingly at will. Her sound soared over entire ensembles and she dominated the stage with her presence. Not only is her singing a joy to hear, she can act as well and she made us feel for her plight as a prisoner of war.
As Radames, Walter Fraccaro was a strong military leader who sang with a substantial, if not really beautiful, sound. Like Moore, mezzo-soprano Jill Groves has a large voice with interesting colors and overtones. She was a haughty Amneris who completely lost her heart to Radames. She paced her singing well and her Judgment Scene was the culmination of a fine rendition of the role. Mark S. Doss is a good singer who can create a memorable character on the stage. His Amonasro was always surrounded by an aura of danger and he sang with a dark dramatic sound. Ramfis, the High Priest was a very powerful man and Reinhard Hagen commanded the stage with definitive bass notes and a strong presence.
Kenneth Heidecke’s choreography was appropriate to each of the scenes in which there was dancing. The chorus has a huge part to play in this opera and Chorus Master Charles Prestinari had several groups representing Egyptians and their Ethiopian prisoners singing Verdi’s glorious harmonies while their characters were at odds with each other. With this production, conductor Daniele Callegari made a most successful San Diego Opera debut. His tempi were brisk but never too fast. He gave the singers room to breathe and never covered their softer tones. As a result of all of these excellent artists working together, San Diego Opera patrons enjoyed a truly memorable performance of this spectacular work.
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