Tribute was paid to the past on Oct. 12 when Pittsburgh Opera opened its 75th season, but the exciting performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" at the Benedum Center created indelible memories of its own.
Before the opera began, general director Christopher Hahn welcomed the audience while sharing the stage with two predecessors, Tito Capobianco and Mark Weinstein. They represent a lineage because Capobianco hired Weinstein, who hired Hahn.
The company's first general director, conductor Richard Karp, died in 1977, but his baton was used Saturday by music director Antony Walker.
"Aida" is set in ancient Eqypt and is most famous for the spectacle of the "Triumphal Scene," in which the Egyptian army returns victorious -- with prisoners and spoils of war -- after having beaten the Ethiopian army. It is the consequences of the conflict between imperial responsibilities and personal desires that provide the conflict within each of the three leading characters and between them.
Latonia Moore commanded the stage as "Aida," a role she's performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He voice is lustrous and smooth on top, and has an emotional tinge even at the ends of phrases that taper quietly. Her lowest register was dry at first, but velvety long before the exquisite tomb scene.
The soprano's power was thrilling to experience, both in solos and in big scenes. She also acted extremely well. All in all, an unforgettable company debut.
Tenor Carl Tanner, also making his debut, was an uncommonly strong Radames, the Egyptian general in love with Aida but desired by Amernis, daughter of Egypt's king.
"Celeste Aida" rang out, including at the end where Verdi asked for a diminuendo culminating in a soft high B flat. Few tenors perform it Verdi's way because it's so difficult to do right at the start of the opera. But Tanner also didn't hold the note after hitting it, creating a moment of awkwardness. However, he was excellent thereafter, and showed he can sing softly very well in the tomb scene.
Elizabeth Bishop gave an excellent portrayal of Amneris, one that generated real sympathy for her situation. Her powerful mezzo had the steel for a daughter of the king, and she controlled it with mastery that was nuanced to her changing moods -- stong-willed, conflicted, cunning and vulnerable.
Lester Lynch gave a great performance as Amonasro, Ethiopia's king and Aida's father. He was so commanding a presence as a prisoner of war in the Triumphal Scene it was surprising no one suspected he was no ordinary prisoner. He was also very effective in laying his guilt trip on Aida in Act 3.
Oren Gradus sang very well as Ramfis, the high priest, offering strength and dignity. Phillip Gay as the King and Jasmine Muhammad as the High Priestess were both effective.
Great singing wasn't limited to the named characters. Pittsburgh Opera Chorus was was a joy to hear -- massed for the Triumphal Scene or broken up into women singing for Amneris in Act 2, and men as priests. Sopranos, altos, tenors and basses each sang as focused sections with beautiful shaped lines. Bravo.
Walker led a wonderfully dramatic performance -- well-paced, colorful and beautiful together in ensemble. Delicate moments were all the more magical for being precisely defined.
He also let the orchestra and chorus rip at the right moments, which contributed to the sweep of the performance. This made Moore's ability to ride the climaxes all the more impressive.
The orchestra was outstanding, apart from one bad chord at the end of the prelude. The string section had remarkable tonal character and cohesion. Wind solos, including piccolo, were keenly drawn. The brass, and especially trumpets, have a big role in this opera, and played magnificently. Timpani and bass drum also stepped up to Walker's scale of sonority for this opera.
The Triumphal Scene featured many extra elements, including two horses ridden by members of the Allegheny Country Police Mounted Patrol, a python, a hawk, and four greyhounds with their handlers.
Former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch was the "Champion of Champions" on Saturday night. He comported himself with dignity and exchanged salutes with Radames. Bob Friend, Franco Harris and Phil Bourge will take this silent role at subsequent performances.
Pittsburgh Opera's production of "Aida" will be repeated at 7 p.m. Oct. 15, 8 p.m. Oct. 18, and 2 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $12.75 to $179. Details: 412-281- 0912 or www.pittsburghopera.org.
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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