My first : Aida grand opera emphasizes human qualities and delights audience

Aida – produced by Vancouver Opera

Remaining dates April 28, May 1st, May 3rd

Reviewed on April 26th, by Todd Wong and Deb Martin

19th Century Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi was commissioned to write an opera, with French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette by Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt.  It is set during the ancient wars between Egypt and Ethiopia, and many years later Vancouver Opera stages with Russian singers, as well as Americans of Greek, African and Hawaiian ancestry in the lead roles.  Oftentimes, operas were set in exotic locales to entice the audience, resulting in many cultural stereotypes – but Aida was commissioned specifically for Egypt and had it’s world premiere in Cairo.  We went to see the opera after having dinner in a French-Tunisian restaurant on Commercial Drive.  Welcome to a very intercultural Vancouver.

There were no elephants or camels or falcons on stage at Vancouver Opera’s season closing production of Aida.  This is the opera which had been infamously presented at BC Place in 1989 with a large pyramid towed in on a barge, as well as at the base of the pyramids in Egypt and at the Masada.  No, the Vancouver Opera production alluded to grandeur with a set that featured the large head of a sphinx and entrance to a temple.  But oh – the singing was indeed grand, and it is what everybody was talking about.

Aida is played by Russian soprano Mladda Khudoley, whose voice soared above the combined chorus of epic singing, with almost 80 people on stage.

Wow….

Aida’s love interest is Radames played by American tenor Arnold Rawls, which sets up a complicated love triangle because the Pharoah’s daughter Amneris, played by Greek-American mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas, is also smitten with him.  Hawaiian-American Quinn Kelsey is Amonasro the Ethiopian warrior king who is also father of Aida.  African-American Morris Robinson brings his earth shaking bass voice to the role of Ramfis the priest.

These are all wonderful voices with strong acting skills that add to this wonderful production.  Their nuanced glances and movements greatly enhanced their performances.

The first half of Aida which sets up the plot was typical Verdi, long & a bit musically boring, but the visuals and solo arias were interesting, especially the dancing choreographed by local Vancouverite Chan Hon Goh, former soloist with the National Ballet.  The 3rd Act opened after the intermission with a   a different style of music that really echoed Egyptian music, that brought back our attention.  Oftentimes in Grand Opera, someone launches into a long, long aria and death scenes are equally long, but this time, the brevity of the final dying scene took us by surprise.

The cool parts: the super pianissimo from the men’s chorus & the trumpets on stage. The huge chorus was exceptionally good – thanks going out to Leslie Dala for preparing them. The trumpets are on loan from the West Vancouver Youth Band and Burnaby South Secondary. They are trumpets, just straightened out instead of looped up.

Vancouver Opera’s most recent production of Barber of Seville, featured partial male nudity, with chorus and supernuneries getting changed as if they were in a movie set dressing room.   This time male Egyptian guards showed off some nice pecs and abdominal muscles, as well as the diversity of the human form.  But of course, the dancers had the best bodies and athletic skills – too bad it was hard for them to dance more expressively wearing hindering costumes.  We also thought the spray tans on the Egyptian guards were funny. The opera glasses let us get a good look.

We were excited about seeing Aida for the first time, having heard, of course, of the huge productions with live elephants & pyramids.  We almost expected the sphinx head on stage to open up at some point and release warriors, as the seams of the blocks it was built out of were so visible.  We thought surely it would come apart, having seen something similar in the VO’s production of Lillian Alling, when the forest trees parted to reveal a car “driving down the highway”.

Vancouver Opera productions have been consistently great in recent years. 2010’s version of Nixon in China has now been re-mounted by other companies and is becoming the go-to production.  For Aida, the orchestra is first rate, the chorus shines, and the soloists carefully selected to thrill.  While this show didn’t sparkle & zip like West Side Story, or amuse us with novelty & “buffa” like Barber of Seville or Italian Girl in Algiers, it was solid and classic, and beautifully performed.  We will remember it because it was our first… maybe just like the lovers of Aida and Radames!

Check out this youtube footage of Vancouver Opera’s AIDA rehearsal:

AIDA rehearsal footage with interviews – YouTube

www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FjiF-fyVQY12 Apr 2012 – 2 min – Uploaded by vancouveropera
Vancouver Opera presents Aida at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. April 21 – May 3, 2012. vancouveropera.ca

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