Grand opera doesn't necessarily mean great opera. Aïda, Giuseppe Verdi's tale of an Ethiopian princess' tragic love affair amid the imperial splendor of ancient Egypt, is considered one of the grandest because of its lavish sets, extensive brass parts, and monumental setting. But what makes this opera so wonderful--indeed, so great--has little to do with spectacle and a lot more to do with Verdi's incomparable music. It is rumored that Luciano Pavarotti has chosen Aïda for his only performances at the Metropolitan Opera--not so he can share the stage with an elephant, but because his first-act aria, "Celeste Aïda," and his closing duet with Aïda, "O terra, addio," are among Verdi's most inspired moments.
The Baltimore Opera Co.'s production of Aïda, which launched the company's 50th-anniversary season, was pretty grand but not very great. What was grand, of course, was the new production, directed and designed by Roberto Oswald, which featured handsome blond woods adorning the scenes that take place in Memphis and Thebes and a huge Pharaoh's head in the background. Costume designer Anibal Lapiz had something for everyone, including gimpy, bronzed body suits for the solo dancers, faux hooters for selected Ethiopian slaves, and many overtly studly male servants. While the characters' stage movements possessed a peculiar mystique, Oswald more often than not overstylized them to the point of silliness.
Not so great, however, were the singers; in particular, tenor Lando Bartolini. While his high register had a semiappealing sheen at moments, he sounded labored and forced the whole evening, particularly in "Celeste Aïda." The other leads--Norma Fantini as Aïda and Nina Terentieva as Amneris--provided some affecting music-making, but neither was spellbinding. Not that the audience knows everything, but the applause throughout the evening was never more than tepid.
There were, however, some worthy moments, most notably provided by baritone Mark Delavan, who sang the part of the King of Ethiopia. He doesn't make his entrance until the end of Act 2, but Delavan possessed that jaw-dropping sound that the principals lacked. The orchestra, conducted by Andrea Licata, was one of the performance's main assets, particularly oboist Vladimir Lande's exotic solos in Act 3; the chorus, prepared by James Harp, also sounded first-rate.
Duke Ellington's famous line, "If it sounds good, it is good," is also true in its negative. If Aïda doesn't have outstanding leads, then its purpose becomes not much more than providing some pretentious eye candy. It'll be interesting to see how the Baltimore Opera Co. fairs with another grand-opera giant, Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, at the end of their gala season in June 2001.