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Ritorna Vincitor

Lyric Opera House
10/11/2008 -  and October 15, 17, 18, 19
Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
Ashley Howard Wilkinson (Ramfis), Antonello Palombi (Radames), Giovanna Casolla (Amneris), Tiziana Caruso (Aida), Jamie Offenbach (King of Egypt), Patrick Toomey (Messenger), Sara Stewart (Priestess), Mark Rucker (Amonasro), Durrell P. Comedy, Blanche Hampton, Luis Torres-Otiz (Solo Dancers), Anna Cuocolo (Choreographer), Baltimore Opera Company Chorus, Baltimore Opera Company Orchestra, James Harp (Chorus Master), Andrea Licata (Conductor), Paolo Miccichè (Stage and Visual Director, Lighting Designer)

(© Baltimore Opera Company)

The Baltimore Opera Company opened its 2008/09 season with a daring and innovative new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida conceived and directed by Italian techno-visual wizard Paolo Miccichè. The production features a magnificent quartet of international singers and a splendid conductor; the combined efforts of whom bring the opera to life in a dramatically convincing and vocally thrilling performance. Not to be bested by the soloists, the superb chorus of the Baltimore Opera provided, perhaps, the best singing of the evening.

As the enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida, Sicilian soprano Tiziana Caruso displayed a dark and velvety voice with an exquisitely floated pianissimo which she used to great effect on the high C of the great Nile Scene aria “O patria mia.” However she had a tendency to “under-sing” almost every phrase, apparently for artistic effect, but in such a dramatic role as Aida it seemed curiously out of character and gave the appearance of marking through much of her performance. Her stage presence was captivating nonetheless and she was able to convey a great deal of pathos and emotion.

Italian mezzo Giovanna Casolla was equally riveting in the role of Amneris, the Egyptian princess who is Aida’s rival for the love of Radames, leader of the Egyptian troops. Ms. Casolla has a most secure and thrilling top register of which she had no trepidation in unleashing. She brought the house down at the end of the Act IV Judgment Scene (Anatema su voi!) when she let fly with the longest sustained high Bb I have ever heard from any Amneris. It was indeed exciting.

Ms. Casolla and Ms. Caruso, however, were both afflicted with two similar shortcomings. They sang dreadfully out of tune in the upper passaggio, and neither one had any vocal projection in the lower middle and bottom registers. This is most peculiar and unsatisfying for a mezzo in particular, and it caused both of them to be unheard in certain passages. They were completely overwhelmed by the orchestra throughout most of their famous Act I duet (Silenzio! Aida verso noi s’avanza). Fortunately a good deal of the opera lies higher in the voice, and it was in these higher passages that they achieved their best moments.

Italian tenor Antonello Palombi was in fabulous voice from beginning to end. His voice showed no signs of fatigue or stress throughout the evening. He was especially satisfying in the Nile scene, where his abandon and passionate delivery was the perfect counterpoint to Ms. Caruso’s seemingly restrained vocal delivery, and he concluded the scene brilliantly with a rousing “squillante” delivery of the great line…”Sacerdoti, Io resto a te!” He also brought out the best singing in mezzo Casolla in the Judgment Scene, elevating her performance to match his. The audience awarded him with a standing ovation at his final curtain call. I had not heard Mr. Palombi prior to this performance. He is certainly a tenor in the grand Italian tradition.

As Amonasro, Aida’s father and King of Ethiopia, baritone Mark Rucker was superb. His voice is large and resonant with a very easy top and a true Verdian sound. He was insinuating and forceful in his great scene with Aida on the banks of the Nile. Verdi scores some of his loudest and densest orchestral passages in this scene and Mr. Rucker rode the waves like a true champ. He captured the noble and proud character of the warrior king both vocally and dramatically, making his moments on the stage among the most persuasive highlights of the evening.

The smaller roles were very well cast. Patrick Toomey was excellent in his short but important role as the messenger. Soprano Sara Stewart as the Priestess and bass Ashley Howard Wilkinson as the High Priest Ramfis were impressive in the great invocation at the Temple of Vulcan, as was the chorus. Mr. Wilkinson and the male chorus scoring even higher points with a truly solemn rendition of the Judgment Scene. Bass Jamie Offenbach was an equally commanding presence as the King of Egypt.

The “beefcake” of most Aida ballets is something I always look forward to, but Anna Cuocolo’s choreography was the silliest I have ever seen and verged on being pure “camp.” Her dancers were excellent but her inspiration was weak.

The singing of the Baltimore Opera Chorus was one of the great highlights of the evening. They were superb in all of their scenes and simply magnificent in the Triumphal Scene. Sounding like a chorus of 200, they were considerably less. I extend bravos to them and to chorus master James Harp.

I have been a big fan of Paolo Miccichè and was bowled over by his production of Madama Butterfly at Baltimore Opera last season. This production of Aida was not to my liking. I thought it captured nothing of the grandeur of the work and in many moments just looked “cheesy.” His choice of imagery seemed so unattractive and visually dull. Most of all I disliked the lighting. Everything was so dark. Even the Triumphal Scene seemed to occur at dusk. A large sun rose over the Geza Pyramids but it was apparently a midnight sun as it gave only minimal light, reducing one of the most brilliant spectacles in all of opera to a rather drab sideshow. I was very disappointed and whatever point he was trying to make, if there was one, escaped me. On the positive side, Mr. Miccichè’s direction never intruded upon the music. He let the music speak for itself and that is always a good thing. This let Mr. Verdi win the evening in spite of bad lighting and visuals.

The hands that saved the evening were those of Maestro Licata. His focus and direction kept the orchestra and singers on track and delivered an uplifting and inspiring performance, which is what we all came to theater for in the first place.

Ritorna Vincitor! …Viva Verdi!

Micaele Sparacino



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