San Francisco Opera’s ‘Aida’

Opera is a many-splendoured thing 

What’s cyan blue and gold and spectacular all over?

Why, the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Verdi’s “Aida” (developed in concert with the English National Opera and Houston Grand Opera), which opened September 10 at the War Memorial Opera House and continues through December 5.

This venerable pillar of 19th-century values and operatic theatricality has a new look, developed by the English designer Zandra Rhodes, whose designs in fashion, and now opera, emphasize the brilliantly colored, the fantastical, and the wildly expressive.

There is something fun about Rhodes interpretation of this somber and at times bulky tribute to patriotism and love unto the grave—two of Verdi’s favorite themes. Certainly, the designs free the opera from its more ponderous moments. The look of this “Aida” is a cross between Peter Max and “Brother from Another Planet.” The representational embellishments—the heads at the tops of the columns in the second act, for example—are reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s whimsical drawings. And who, after all, can resist choruses of bare-chested men in pleated gold cloth skirts to the ground?

What saves the production from campy frivolity are the dark diagonal panels decorated with gold squiggles that suggest demotic hieroglyphs, the Egyptian script developed much later in Egyptian history than the Old Kingdom that “Aida” purports to be set in. (But why quibble about historical inaccuracies when Verdi and his librettists paid little or no attention to them to begin with?) The panels’ movement across the stage, narrowing and expanding the audience’s focus into pyramid-shaped centers of action, smacked of staging genius and overrode the potential folly of the graphics.

More to the point in any production of “Aida” are the singers, who are always the main focus of Verdi’s tuneful operas. It is the music—simply as music and music to be sung—which is Verdi’s great virtue.

Italian soprano Micaela Carosi sang Aida. She has one of those heavy soprano voices, with dark tonal qualities, variously colored in the lower register and less attractive in the upper registers. It was interesting that Dolora Zajick, the dramatic mezzo who sang the jealous and vengeful princess of Egypt Amneris, had a sweeter tone in the upper register. Strikingly. Even so, once I gave myself over to Carosi’s sound, I found it engaging and absorbing. It was a voice to think about, to attend to and parse out the components of its colors.

Tenor Marcello Giordani as the warrior Radames was less pleasing. With a bright, focused tone and a very large, effortless sound, he tended to have a sameness in sound quality, though there was no denying the brilliance in his voice. Or his skill as a singer.

Dolora Zajick had not only one of the opera’s more interesting parts—Amneris is nothing if not a seething mass of contradictory desires and actions—but she fulfilled the audience’s desire for beauty of sound and phrasing. And likewise, baritone Marco Vratogna had a wonderful, full and rich sound in his portrayal of Aida’s father Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia (though I admit I could have lived without Rhodes’ costume, which made him look like a Malay pirate. Ditto all the Ethiopian costumes).

Subtly, the big deep voices rule this opera, setting a resonant background for the three leads. The excellent Hao Jiang Tian and Christian Van Horn, as Ramfis and the King of Egypt respectively, acquitted themselves with luminosity and honor. And once again, the San Francisco Opera Chorus was worth its weight in gold lamé.

—Jaime Robles

Micaela Carosi as Aida in the San Francisco Opera production of “Aida”. Photo by Cory Weaver