SF Opera’s ‘Aida’ looks a bit like ‘Evita’

Director Francesca Zambello’s new San Francisco Opera production of “Aida” — boasting bold, contemporary designs by Los Angeles street artist RETNA — meets the challenges of mounting the big Verdi classic, famous for being difficult to stage.

RETNA’s blend of street art, hieroglyphics and Semetic calligraphy on screens and moving panels in Michael Yeargan’s otherwise minimalist set (as well as on ceremonial staffs, flags and weapons) are the opera’s only Egyptian-themed visuals. And with Anita Yavich’s costumes, which look like military attire for Peron’s fascist-era Argentina, one might mistake this “Aida” for “Evita.”

Yet on Saturday’s opening night at the War Memorial, the strong principles, notably soprano Leah Crocetto in the title role, firmly grounded the production.

Crocetto’s plush, assured voice lent vocal warmth to solos, including the richly expressive Act 3 aria “Oh, patria mia, mai piu ti rivedro,” in which the Ethiopian princess who is held a captive slave in Egypt pines for her native land, one of multiple major issues that trouble Aida.

Her love interest Radames, captain of the Egyptian guard, is her main preoccupation.

Tenor Brian Jagde (in his role debut, as is Crocetto), was fine as the military hero who saves Egypt but unwittingly betrays his country when he reveals military secrets to his beloved Aida. His clear, supple voice made was favorable from the get-go with the Act 1 signature aria “Celeste Aida.”

Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Egyptian princess Amneris — who is in love with Radames but suspects his heart belongs to her slave Aida — slyly coaxes out the truth from Aida. In their showpiece Act 2 duet, she was effective but reserved.

But she unleashed her full vocal richness and power in Act 4, when, in a bid to save Radames, she implores him to contest charges of treason against him.

Baritone George Gagnidze brought steely determination and a muscular voice to Aida’s father Amonasro, king of Ethiopia, who falls a captive of the Egyptians upon his army’s defeat. His Act 3 duet with Crocetto, when he convinces her to obtain strategic war information from Radames for the sake of Ethiopia, was especially moving.

Basses Raymond Aceto as high priest Ramfis and Anthony Reed as Amneris’ father, the king of Egypt, delivered strong performances. Aceto’s big, smoky voice effectively conveyed the ominous power of the clergy, while Reed was steady and stentorian as a ruling figure.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti adeptly harnessed the potency of the orchestra, well-measured and luxurious, while the chorus, led by Ian Robertson, admirably and gloriously did plenty of heavy lifting, especially in the famous Act 2 Triumphal Scene.

REVIEW

Aida
Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8, Nov. 11, Nov. 14, Nov. 17, Nov. 23, Nov. 27, Nov. 30, Dec. 3, Dec. 6; 2 p.m. Nov. 20
Tickets: $26 to $417
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

James Ambroff-Tahan

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