Chorale closes season with a splendid `Aida'

opera review

April 30, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,special to the sun

J. Ernest Green and the Annapolis Chorale ended their 35th season on the highest possible note with two Aida performances last weekend, performed with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and guest soloists. The collaboration exceeded even expectations raised by a news release promising "opera like you've never heard it before," with a 160-voice chorus and "an international cast of opera stars who will launch a new world tour from Annapolis." Such heady stuff was nearly impossible to imagine happening at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

A capacity crowd prepared for what they were to hear by attending Green's lecture on Saturday, when he explained that Aida is a big opera by any standards. We learned that Verdi composed it at the invitation of Ismail Pasha of Egypt, who'd built an opera house in Cairo and commissioned Verdi to write an opera expressly for him.

Verdi, composer of the popular Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, incorporated the exoticism of ancient Egypt into his new creation, a huge spectacle featuring a love triangle of an Egyptian princess, Amneris, her slave Aida, an Ethiopian princess, and Egyptian soldier-hero Radames.

Because Green presents opera in concert form at Maryland Hall, he suggested we think of Aida as an intimate work, adding that we might find verismo, or realistic melodies reminiscent of Puccini's. This performance would be a musical preview of what would later tour internationally.

The sound produced by the Annapolis Chorale would be much larger than the choruses of major opera houses, which usually number from 60 to perhaps 100 voices. But we're not to see the full, spectacular production that will tour around the world. That extravaganza, according to the program notes, will "revolutionize how opera is done with bold new staging, the latest in special effects and more than 4,500 ornate costumes, 400 musicians and a technical crew of more than 250." Green is to be music director for the touring production as well.

In the 11 years that I've covered Maryland Hall performances, I've never heard such a vocal cornucopia, nor have I experienced the complete opera package presented by Green. Not an Aida novice, I've seen it performed three times at the Arena di Verona, where it opens every outdoor opera season. I've also heard it at Baltimore Opera, and on countless Met broadcasts. I've enjoyed the spectacle, but usually found the characters somewhat lifeless. In truth, Elton John's Broadway version of Aida was more accessible and human to me.

Here, in this concert version, I discovered breathing Aida characters: Verdi's usual interfering father, here in Aida's father, Amonasro; a willful, complex woman in Amneris; a heroic Radames, a tenor soldier ready to die for love; and Aida, who loved her native Ethiopia and her prisoner father. But she also loved Radames, and she wanted to persuade him to run away with her.

Chorale singers sounded better than ever, which is high praise indeed.

The role of priest Ramfis was sung by bass Myron Myers, whose warm, agile voice possesses rich color and great power.

Radames was sung by tenor Antonio Nagore, who reminded me of Jon Vickers in stature, rich timbre and near-Helden fortissimo qualities. Nagore is fearless -- going to the brink to create great vocal excitement and brilliant high notes.

Creating her own excitement was mezzo-soprano Jeniece Golbourne as an unforgettable Amneris. A strong actress with a rich, mesmerizing voice, Golbourne's Amneris commanded the stage.

Soprano Leah Anne Myers displayed considerable vocal gifts as Aida, with an expressive voice that floated high, bell-like notes. Myers is also a convincing actress.

Chorale singers Scott Root, as the king of Egypt, and Christopher Douglas Rhodovi, as a messenger, Jill Woodward and Laurie Hays as priestesses managed to hold their own in this stellar cast, with Hays providing her own exotic beauty in the haunting prayer to the god Phtha.

Singing the role of Aida's father and king of Ethiopia was Shouvik Mondle, who surpassed any Amonasro I've heard at Verona or elsewhere. Mondle's is a sonorous, warm baritone that stands out in any vocal ensemble.

The Annapolis Chamber Orchestra brought us a fully dimensional, passionate and exotic Verdi that was thrilling to hear.

A prolonged standing ovation followed the performance -- with most of the audience lingering afterward, as if reluctant to end this unique musical experience.

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