So, I have just stood through the length of Aida (it's more than 3 hours) and I would do it again if I had the chance. I think that says something about how great it was.
So, before I say anything else, let me just say this. if you have the chance to see Latonia Moore live in Aida, go, do not question the price. Sell something if you have to, but just go. Seriously, she is that good. I really cannot think of anyone singing at the moment who could match Latonia Moore as Aida. I fully expect to find she is identified with the role in the future like Leontyne Price was with it. Yes, she is that good, a singer who other soprani will be measured against in this role. And she is still young.
But anyway, enough gushing and how about I tell you why, right? Well, we are talking a huge voice. Huge, as in sing over the top of the chorus and fellow soloists in the triumphal march scene huge. As in, could take on Turandot in the future if she wanted huge. But, while she has the power to make Ritorna vincitor the potent mix of excitement and horror it should be, the most impressive aria was O Patria mia, with its long floating phrases just hanging beautifully with that gorgeous tone filling the theatre and with stunning crescendi to powerful notes that were both expressive and controlled. Just listen to this La mama morta to get an idea of her voice:
So, yes, you could say, today's tickets were worth it purely for seeing Latonia do her thing, and do it very well. But she was not the only good thing about today's performance. To be sure, she out sang everyone on stage, but they all held up quite well beside her. As her lover Radames, Rosario LaSpina proved what a fine big voiced tenor he is. To be sure, today was not his best sounding day, but never once did he sound awkward or lost. Rather, his issue today was more a tendency to sound a bit "strangled tenor" not the clear open sound I have heard from him before. Having said that, he still sounded much better than many tenors I have heard live in big roles. It's more that when I know how good he can sound, I get upset when he does not sound that good. But hey, if that was an off day, I would be pretty happy with it. He still got the second biggest applause of the curtain calls, and never once sounded in danger of not hitting the note, or cracked, or went "splat" on a high note, he just did not sound as good as I have heard him. Radames might not be his best role. Listening to him today, I was wondering if he is heading into dramatic tenor territory. There was something of the ugly sound about him that some dramatic tenors get. That sound that is not pretty, but boy is it loud. That was more like what he was sounding like today. And that is not a bad thing for Radames really. Especially when you get the ending right, singing with as much sensitivity as your Aida did (she got THAT note right) in their final death scene.
With today's Amneris, Milijana Nikolic, I started thinking she was going to be sung off the stage physically. Her opening left me wondering what OA were doing casting her in the role. Having said that, by the time of the Nile scene, there was no doubt she belonged on the stage with Latonia and Rosario. Not warmed up enough maybe? I don't know, but by the end, her voice was holding her own against the big guns, working hard at making Amneris a human figure, not just the cruel figurehead of a rejected woman, but a woman who both is used to getting everything she wants, and trying to deal with not getting the one thing she really wants.
Of the others, well, Andrew Brunsdon was a luxury casting Messenger and sang it as beautifully as I would expect him to.
Jud Arthur brought his beautiful bass sound to the King, but sounded way under powered against the others on stage. To be sure, his is a small role and basses that sound this good are not common, but it made me wish for anyone of a number of basses from OperaAustralia's past in the role.
Amonasro was Michael Honeyman, who recently impressed me in Die Tote Stadt, proving again today that this is a voice to watch. I wanted more power from him, but I was more than happy with what I was hearing, I just wanted it to be bigger. Time will fix that of course!
Ramfis was sung by Paul Whelan and I was again wanting a bigger voice. The big bad bass has to be big and bad to really convince, and frankly, Paul did not sound like the big threatening high priest who has the say in much that happens in this opera. Its a role that needs more power to make you believe he is that powerful, and frankly, I felt like he was a boy playing at being the man. Which screams bad casting, to my mind, rather than a bad performance.
I have to say, though, I was not impressed with Arvo Volmer's conducting. Verdi has to be a bit, well, barbaric? You really need to feel those dotted rhythms, and feel the marches in your soul and they lacked the bite they needed. But, having said that, he really got the last 2 acts right. The lyrical beauty of the Nile scene was milked for every ounce of beauty, and the judgement and death scenes were impressive in control. I just wanted that sense of abandon that great Verdi has, and I was not hearing it at all.
On the other hand, I was impressed with Graeme Murphy's direction with limited resources. Obviously OperaAustralia does not have the resources of The Met to mount Aida with masses of chorus and extras. But he has worked well with minimal resources (and the tiny Sydney Opera House stage) to make this a spectacle. The triumphal march scene was cleverly done, with a mix of live figures and cutouts in the parade. The set throughout was based on a steep rake with a ramp that opened at the back at certain points for entries and exits. There was a triangle on the backdrop which was sometimes used to indicate a pyramid, at other times other things. Various "Egyptian" set elements were flown in or brought in from the wings at various times to indicate differing locations with a minimum of fuss. There was also a thin strip of water between the pit and the rest of the stage, which represented the Nile. Its presence the whole time was an interesting reminder of Egypt's dependence on it in the past, as well as used cleverly, especially in the Nile scene. The death scene worked, with a coup de theatre that I did not expect. His staging focused on telling the story, allowing the drama to develop and making us care for the characters. It worked well. There were a few surprising touches, but nothing that stood out as a whoops or what the moment. It was the story, and nothing but the story.
However, while the set was effective and functional, the lighting design was definitely something. While it did not hinder from the story, some of the extra projections of Egyptian symbols did leave me feeling "enough already". Mostly, the lighting worked well to draw attention to the things that matter, sometimes too much so, but then, I do know Aida backwards. Some of the awkward mass scene moments were helped by lighting tricks, making us focus on those intimate between two character exchanges, not wondering why others don't notice what was said/sung.
However, it does have to be said, while Graeme Murphy is a great opera director for bringing the story to life, he really has a reluctance to let things just be, to let us just focus on the glorious singing. Several times I watched massed movement happen and realised there was no reason for it, apart from trying to avoid a static scene. And, in Aida, you do sort of expect a few static scenes as the masses just let rip and sing. A couple of times I wanted to say, "just stand still and sing" but it was a small price to pay for a performance with standards on the whole, as high as today's were.
But ultimately, it has to be said, Aida ultimately stands and falls on the strengths of the main leads, and today, Opera Australia delivered those, and did it well.
Can we do it again now? (And the answer is, yes, seated, with a different cast in September)
And below, a snippet from Latonia singing at Dallas...