Ravinia’s impassioned “Aida” a Verdi night to remember
Ravinia’s music director hoped the audience that packed Ravinia’s pavilion and vast lawns wouldn’t miss “the elephants” that make Aida one of opera’s most grandly scaled stage spectacles. But, he added, “When we put on an opera with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, there’s nothing like it.”
How right he was. Especially when the starry cast joining Conlon and the CSO included Roberto Alagna as Radames, radiant young newcomer Latonia Moore in the title role, and Chicago favorites mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and bass Morris Robinson. Like Alagna and Brown, baritone Mark Delavan was also making his Ravinia debut, singing Aida’s father, Amonasro.
When the evening ended after more than three hours of impassioned singing and sumptuous orchestral playing, it was obvious that few in the cheering, ecstatic audience missed the elephants or any other lavish stage effects that are standard issue for an opera house Aida.
In terms of opera at Ravinia in recent years, Conlon’s specialty has been intimate-scaled, semi-staged Mozart productions performed by reduced CSO forces in the festival’s cozy Martin Theatre. But he clearly brought to Aida the same attention to musical detail that made those Mozart productions so memorable.
In the opening moments of the Prelude, the large CSO violin section sounded as transparent and emotionally vulnerable as any Mozart-sized ensemble. As Radames sang of his lust for battlefield glory, the signature swagger of the CSO’s burnished brass added noble resonance to his longing. In Verdi’s dramatic ensembles, as the stellar soloists soared easily above the full-throated orchestra and chorus, the combination of speed, passion and precision was exhilarating.
Moore became a darling of the Metropolitan Opera audience last year when she stepped into the role of Aida on one day’s notice. It was clear on Saturday night that the Houston native has the role’s vocal and dramatic requirements firmly in hand. Her voice is big, youthful and fresh with a sweet undercurrent despite its ringing power. Trembling with desire for Radames, imploring mercy from the cruel gods, she made her Ravinia debut with an Aida to break the heart.
Alagna cut a trim, proud figure as Radames. His voice sounded dry at times, but he had power to burn and top notes that matched Moore’s. DeYoung’s Amneris was gorgeously shaded. Her rich, flexible voice turned dangerously sweet as she offered Aida false friendship. But in the throes of jealous rage, her mezzo-soprano became a fearsome blend of dark smoke and high-leaping, blazing fire.
Deploying his sepulchral bass like a lethal weapon, Robinson’s High Priest Ramfis was genuinely terrifying. Sara Murphy brought a supple, sensuous mezzo-soprano to the role of a priestess, while bass James Creswell as the King of Egypt and tenor Joshua Guerrero as a messenger were strong links among the soloists.
Prepared by Chorus director Duain Wolfe, the Chicago Symphony Chorus shifted easily between the hushed reverence of temple worshipers and the barely controlled frenzy of a bellicose crowd baying for blood.
Ravinia scheduled Aida as a tribute to the bicentennial of Verdi’s birth. It was a birthday party to remember.