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A Cold Egypt

Lyric Opera
01/21/2012 -  & January 25*, 28, 31, February 3, 8, March 6, 10, 15, 19, 22, 25, 2012
Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
Raymond Aceto (Ramfis), Marcello Giordani (Radames), Jill Grove (Amneris), Sondra Radvanovsky (Aida), Evan Boyer (King of Egypt), Bernard Holcomb (Messenger), Cecelia Hall (Priestess), Gordon Hawkins (Amonasro)
Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus, Renato Palumbo (conductor)
Nicolas Joel (director), Pet Halmen (set and costume designer), Jason Brown (lighting designer), Kenneth von Heidecke (choreographer)

S. Radvanovsky & M. Giordani (Courtesy L. of C.)

Verdi’s great warhorse occupies a prominent place in Chicago’s 2011-2012 season, especially for its casting of the rising spinto soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. Having only taken on the role last season, Radvanovsky was the indisputable star of the show and lived up to high expectations. There is a sturdy, metallic quality to the voice, which both supports astonishingly well-formed high notes and can shrink into the most delicate piano. It is difficult to imagine a soprano singing today who is better suited to the role.

Radvanovsky’s pairing with the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani highlighted her exceptional qualities. Giordani has become a stand-by leading tenor in American houses, almost certainly because of his ability to float blooming high notes, a feat he achieved perhaps two-thirds of the time in this performance. Below the high range, however, he tends to fall into an unattractive throatiness that thickens the middle register vital to a successful Radames. Though competently sung, the role simply lacked convincing heroic appeal.

More successful were the sturdy baritone of Gordon Hawkins, who is making a name for himself around the world as Wagner’s Alberich. As Aida’s father Amonasro, he successfully wavered between the warmth of a father’s love and the gruffness of a desperate warrior in captivity. The mezzo Jill Grove, best known in comprimario parts, rose to the challenge of Amneris. Her whole evening was glorious, but her exceptional fourth act singing counts among the best Verdian mezzo performances I have ever heard. Raymond Aceto’s fine bass lent a fine Ramfis. Renato Palumbo led the orchestra in a balanced yet pedestrian effort. The choral performance, however, suggested stronger insight.

Nicolas Joel’s production premiered here in 1983, with Luciano Pavarotti as Radames. It is in the main traditional, with costumes taken from the walls of the tombs of Luxor and the expected pylons and pyramids rising above the stage. Backdrops suggest the color drawings of Egyptian ruins by the British artist George Robertson. The touches are nice, but the sets looked old and it might be time for a new production. In any case, it is hard to imagine that in nearly three decades no one has realized that the temples of Luxor and the pyramids of Giza are about 600 miles away from each other. Their juxtaposition in this production will strike anyone who knows Egypt as inauthentic.

Paul du Quenoy



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