As was recently observed, the verismo of Giacomo Puccini may rule over the repertoire history of the San Francisco Opera (SFO); but, when it comes to “grand opera,” it is hard to beat the extremities of grandeur that Giuseppe Verdi could achieve when he decided to pull out all the stops. In the Verdi canon Aida may well be the strongest candidate for grandeur at its grandest, so to speak; and, in her current staging of this opera for SFO, given its world premiere this past Saturday, Francesca Zambello seemed determined to pull out every stop at Verdi’s disposal and add a few of her own. Verdi wrote the opera on a 150,000-franc commission from Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, to celebrate the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo; but its performance was delayed about a year due to the Franco-Prussian War.
If the Khedive was expecting spectacle on a grand scale, he certainly got it. While the plot of Antonio Ghislanzoni’s libretto distills easily down to a basic love triangle, that narrative is embedded in a rich context of a variety of different crowd scenes realized through rich choral writing embedded in even more opulent instrumental resources that never shy away from the brass section. However, in spite of the in-your-face abundance of all of those resources, Aida also delivers some of Verdi’s most intimate rhetorical gestures, beginning with a prelude whose hushed qualities rival those of the opening of Tristan und Isolde and concluding with the musical whimpers of the protagonists suffocating in each other’s arms within the tomb to which the protagonist Radames has been condemned. Nevertheless, between those two highly intimate “bookends” there is no shortage of sound and fury coming from the vocalists as the plot unfolds, always matched in intensity by Verdi’s command of full-orchestra composition.
Working with Artistic Designer RETNA (Marquis Duriel Lewis), Zambello chose a contemporary setting for her production, suggesting the sort of militarized governments that currently seem to be plaguing much of the Middle East and possibly even hinting a bit at the television series Tyrant. RETNA matched this politicized context with vivid images on a large scale that were, for the most part, abstract. However, one could not resist the thought that he was working with his own private language of symbols, meaning that the overall designs may well have carried the same cryptic qualities of hieroglyphs that defy decoding. The results was an impressively internally consistent shared vision of staging and setting that successfully told an old story in strikingly compelling language.
Yet for all the different production qualities that were writ large,Verdi’s capacity for intimacy was never sidelined. This was particularly the case in soprano Leah Crocetto’s account of the title role. Crocetto is turning out to be one of the most distinguished alumnae of SFO’s Adler Fellowship program; and she has made several impressive appearances at the War Memorial Opera House since her “graduation.” However, the role of Aida has given her a chance to display her expressive qualities across the full dynamic range; and her command of soft dynamics is never anything short of stunning. Such breadth of scope was excellently complemented by the role of Radames as interpreted by Brian Jagde, who happens to be another Adler alumnus. The triangle was then filled out by Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Amneris, presented from the outset as a woman facing a predicament and having the last word (literally), again delivered through soft dynamics as she faces the consequences of her actions with contrite resignation.
If the production has any weakness, it lies primarily in the choreography of Jessica Lang (making her SFO debut). The score for Aida is rich with dance episodes that Verdi composed, but it always seemed as if Lang neither knew nor cared about the context that Zambello and RETNA were providing. This was particularly the case in the extended ballet scene in the second act, which seemed to have more to do with The Red Detachment of Women than with a war-riven Middle East. Most disquieting was the solo work given to Rachel Little, which began with disturbing suggestions that a rape was about to take place and then dropped those implications for “just plain dancing.” Fortunately, these were only small corners of a far larger canvas on which it was hard to take any issues with either the visual or the vocal impressions.