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Tamara Wilson [Photo by Aaron Gang courtesy of Columbia Artists Management Inc.]
28 Aug 2015

Aïda at Aspen

Most opera professionals, including the individuals who do the casting for major houses, despair of finding performers who can match historical standards of singing in operas such as Aïda. Yet a concert performance in Aspen gives a glimmer of hope. It was led by four younger singers who may be part of the future of Verdi singing in America and the world.

Aïda at Aspen

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Tamara Wilson [Photo by Aaron Gang courtesy of Columbia Artists Management Inc.]


The title role was taken by the young American soprano Tamara Wilson, who received accolades as a replacement Aïda at the MET last December. Wilson’s cool and silvery soprano reminds one of great interwar Aïda’s—Elizabeth Rethberg comes to mind—rather than Leontyne Price, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi or other postwar singers who have led us to expect broad warm, darkly golden-toned voices in this role. (Wilson even looks a bit like something out of an early 20th century photograph—which I mean as a compliment.) Wilson’s voice is so perfectly focused that at pianissimo it can easily fill even an acoustically problematic space such as Aspen’s large tent, yet it can also swell to a thrilling forte, and beyond to fortissimo—all without spoiling the timbre or line. The technical difficulties of the role—including the dolce high c in “O Patria Mia,” which only a few singers per generation can really sing as written—pose for her no problem. Her clear diction, subtle inflection and musical intelligence, combined with an ability to act with her face, added up to coherent musical-dramatic characterization of the title character: more girlish and vulnerable than one generally sees. As she ages, the voice may fill out further, particularly at the bottom. If so, Wilson may become an Aïda for the ages.

As Ramfis, Morris Robinson commanded the stage even when sharing it with one hundred others. His thundering cries of “Guerra!” rang above the first scene concertante finale, his sonorous bass floated just audible above the opening chorus of the second scene, his subsequent high f at “Folgore morte” was firm, and so on through the night. He acted equally well: his looming presence added an ominous element to the Egyptian priesthood and his quick glances signaled that he was on to Radamès and Aïda long before anyone else. Diction is the only area in which Robinson could improve, but this former all-American football player who began singing opera seriously only at 30, is already more than repaying the early faith of the Met and other companies.

At least at this stage in his career, Brian Mulligan wisely rejects the gruff bluster with which most baritones approach Amonasro in favor of scrupulous and sensitive attention to the score. His approach was evident from his opening declaration (“suo padre!”). Most baritones announce their belated presence with a ringing forte at this point, which makes some dramatic sense for a king in disguise. Yet Mulligan sang it as Verdi plainly wrote it in the score: forte at first, but with a lovely, almost reflective, decrescendo. Elsewhere Mulligan’s scrupulousness and sensitivity paid dividends as well, particularly in the Act III duet with Aïda. Here again we may have the makings of a heavyweight Verdi greatness.

The fourth young singer, tenor Issachah Savage, clearly possesses that rare operatic gift: a near-ideal natural instrument to sing Radamès. He possesses bronze-hued grandeur for the heroic passages and a sweetly mixed timbre for the more intimate ones. Though he has been singing this role for several years, however, nervousness seemed to undermine his big moments. He cut off many extended and exposed phrases, sagged flat and dropped a line in “Celeste Aïda,” and failed to produce a clear tone on both the final A of Act 3 and the penultimate pianissimo B-flat of Act 4. Still, this young Philadelphian is a singer to watch; he may yet achieve historical greatness in spinto and dramatic roles.

The fifth lead singer, Mezzo Michelle DeYoung, was by far the most experienced and best-known singer on stage. She is a consummate professional. The voice is even and smooth from top to bottom and the diction clear. She looks the part and she has clearly thought out the musical-dramatic effects she seeks at every point: her portrayal of Amneris is more sympathetic than the scenery-chewing norm. Yet in the end one wonders if this is really the right role for someone without the requisite chesty mezzo power and steely edge of a classic Verdi mezzo, particularly at the extremes of the voice. She simply failed to command the stage at Amneris’s grandest moments: the Act II duet and, above all, the end of the Judgment Scene, where the ultimate high A is made to ring out more powerfully and longer than the strict four beats in Verdi’s score.

As for the smaller roles, Pureum Jo delivered the Sacerdotessa’s exotic lines smoothly but (whether due to placement or intent) too loudly: the temple priestess’s voice is supposed to emerge mysteriously and exotically from somewhere in the darkness of a vast temple, which is why Verdi marked it to be subtle and soft, even though off-stage. Bass Matthew Treviño and tenor Landon Shaw II used strident declamation, good diction and excellent acting—not to mention the appearance of handsome young mafiosi—to make the most of their cameos as the King and the Messenger.

Given that they (I am told) less than a week and few rehearsals, the Aspen Festival Orchestra under Robert Spano performed with remarkable fluidity, accuracy and idiomatic style. To be sure, the orchestra contains ringers, such as Elaine Douvas (Principal Oboe of the Metropolitan Opera) and David Halen (Concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony), who can handle this material in their sleep. But it also includes top students and young professionals, who acquitted themselves impressively. (No lack of a younger generation among orchestral musicians, evidently!) Only the triumphal trumpets in the higher key struggled. The chorus sang lustily, but also with subtlety when it mattered most. Spano directed well, only occasionally proceeding with excessive caution. By necessity, a semi-staged production will emphasize the intimate aspects of this opera, which took place within a hollow cloth pyramid, open on the side facing the audience. It made for an adequate, though not impressive, set. Comic relief was provided in the Triumphal Scene by permitting a half dozen very large white balloons bounce around the audience, as the principals—still inhabiting the world of 5000 years ago—watched bemused from the stage.

Andrew Moravcsik

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