‘Aida’ of varying shades opens SF Opera season

Mortals seemed to enjoy Friday’s opening of San Francisco Opera’s 88th season with a new Zandra Rhodes-designed production of Verdi’s “Aida.”

But, if Apollo rather than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were in the center box, the response might have been different.

The cruelly exacting god of music demands not only excellence but sustained quality. There was the rub: Friday’s performance was a good, but notably uneven night at the opera — not the transporting experience that separates great opera from fun music theater.

Excellence was obvious when Dolora Zajick’s Amneris gripped the audience, her thrilling voice filling the War Memorial. When Marco Vratogna stormed and menaced as Amonasro, it was exciting.

The colorful production — often reminiscent of a Woolworth summer sale — had a genuine high point with the appearance of a giant fabric elephant (it also looked kind of like a butterfly) in the Triumphal March.

Yet, even without Apollo’s viewpoint, there were obvious missteps. Rhodes and director Jo Davies placed thrones on sides of the prompter’s box at the edges of the stage, and positioned supers around, blocking the view of much of the march.

No similar elementary errors occurred with the music, but the Zajick-Vratogna standard was met only occasionally.

Marcello Giordani’s Radames started with moments of audible effort and his stage presence was less than heroic. By the second part (the thrifty production had just one intermission), his voice opened up, especially after the duet with Zajick.

Micaela Carosi’s Aida was a respectable vocal performance, but difficult to like. With her big but not very musical voice, she made little effort at acting and had little connection with the audience, except for some genuinely pretty pianissimo passages.

Hao Jiang Tian’s Ramfis and Christian Van Horn’s King of Egypt were on the plus side.

Rhodes’ costumes — particularly the floor-length gold-lamé crinoline skirts for men (which turned from gold to silver depending on the lighting) — were terrific.

Ian Robertson’s fashion-model chorus sang well, but was directed to move in occasionally lame directions.

Lawrence Pech’s choreography swayed from the usual silly ballets, presenting one dance number with Chiharu Shibata and four adorable youngsters in a super-fast Punjabi Bhangra (isn’t Egypt close to India?).

The evening’s surprise was that Music Director Nicola Luisotti, despite the orchestra being in fine shape, didn’t bring down the house in one of the most Italian and excitingly rhythmic of all operas.

When Carosi or Giordani sang, Luisotti held back, slowed down the orchestra and lost the zip that’s his hallmark and glory. Of all the things to turn out uneven, Luisotti’s direction is the last that one would have suspected.

Note: Performances in September and October continue with this cast; additional November-December performances will have a different cast and conductor.

OPERA REVIEW  

Aida

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 24, Oct. 2, Nov. 23, Nov. 26 and Nov. 29;  7:30 p.m. Sept. 16, Sept. 29, Oct. 6 and Dec. 2; 2 p.m. Sept. 19 and Dec. 5
Tickets: $25 to $320
Contact: (415) 864-3330; www.sfopera.com

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