Sarasota Opera wraps Verdi cycle with a rousing “Aida”

March 03, 2016
Michelle Johnson and Jonathan Burton in Verdi's "Aida" at Sarasota Opera. Photo: Rod Millington

Michelle Johnson and Jonathan Burton in Verdi’s “Aida” at Sarasota Opera. Photo: Rod Millington

Finally, Egypt.

Aida has long been planned as the final installment of Sarasota Opera’s complete Verdi series, closing the long-running cycle with the grandest of Verdi operas. It took 28 years and much planning to get there–including an expensive renovation of the company’s theater that enlarged the orchestra pit enough to contain Verdi’s large forces.

One concern was how would the company would be able to accommodate the vast spectacle of the triumphal scene on Sarasota Opera’s small stage. That question was answered at Sunday night’s performance—very cleverly.

For this largest and most expensive production in Sarasota Opera history, the company’s go-to designer David P. Gordon devised a bilevel set that put most of the large chorus above with the Ethiopian prisoners below. No live elephants or animals, but the long, cyclical parade of captured treasures worked effectively, backed by the massive swagger and almost physical impact of the orchestra under Victor DeRenzi’s full-tilt conducting. Gordon’s towering design of Egyptian hieroglyph panels were striking and mostly successful, though the painted backdrop for the Nile scene looked a bit cheesy (darker lighting would help). Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes were duly sumptuous and colorful.

But of course, Aida is all about singing, in an opera where big voices require expressive delicacy as well as power to ride over the orchestra, and Sarasota’s respectable cast largely got the job done.

Jonathan Burton’s voice has grown in size and ballast since his company debut. As Radames, the Egyptian captain in love with Aida, the tenor showed his heroic bona fides in the opera’s opening minutes tackling “Celeste Aida”–one of the most tortuous arias in the repertoire–with clarion tone, easy projection and ringing top notes. His acting was just capable, but Burton sang strongly and passionately throughout in an arduous role.

Burton was reunited with his costar from last season’s Don Carlos, Michelle Johnson, as the title Ethiopian captive whose love for Radames is threatened by Amneris, the jealous Egyptian princess. Johnson is a promising singer with an ample instrument and powerful top, her high notes carrying easily over the large orchestra.

Yet her voice seems unevenly produced with her vibrato turning wobbly on high loud notes. “Rirtorna vincitor” was strong and dramatic and her “O patria mia” sensitively sung, though the magical hushed final section was simply not there. Johnson’s stolid acting was even more rudimentary than that of Burton.

Conversely, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo tore up the stage so intensely in the opening scene of Act IV, that it almost felt right to retitle this production, Amneris. The Ohio-born mezzo-soprano made a spectacular Sarasota debut as the king’s vindictive daughter, her impassioned singing and full-blooded characterization delivering the best all-around performance of the night. Her final confrontation with Radames, became a virtual mad scene, played and sung with alarming intensity.

As Amonasro, Marco Nistico’s lightish baritone lies a bit high for the role of Aida’s father, even in this small house. But he brought keen dramatic instincts and intelligent vocalism to the role of the embittered Ethopian king.

It was indeed rich casting to have Young Bok Kim in the role of the chief priest Ramfis, where his penetrating bass illuminated every scene. This is Jeffrey Beruan’s year for high-level personages in Sarasota with the young bass effectively taking on the King of Egypt (as well as Don Fernando in Fidelio).

Under the magisterial direction of Roger L. Bingaman, the expanded chorus delivered sumptuous and remarkably powerful singing that likely could have been heard in Bradenton. Sarasota also culled a superb chamber-size team of dancers for the ballet scenes under choreographer Miro Maglioire. Stephanie Sundine’s direction was smart, effective and unfailingly resourceful in accommodating Verdi’s spectacle to the intimate stage.

But, of course, it is Victor DeRenzi, Sarasota Opera’s artistic director and Verdian extraordinaire, whose musical leadership was the dominant force in this Aida, as in previous installments in the series.

For all the staging limitations, Sunday’s performance of the Triumphal March may have been the most thrilling I’ve ever heard. DeRenzi drew out colors and details of the score so naturally that they emerged uncommonly fresh even in this much-performed work: the strange, feather-like violin notes of the Prelude, the exotic winds before “O patria mia” and the unnerving blend of tragic capitulation and rapt glowing solace in the final scene.

DeRenzi’s magnificent conducting in Aida made this a worthy capstone to the 28-year cycle. Kudos also belong to the company’s current executive director Richard Russell and predecessor Susan Danis for keeping this project on track for nearly three decades, a remarkable achievement likely to stand for a very long time.

Aida runs through March 19.

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