Verdi's 'Aida' soars in intimate Annapolis Opera production

Annapolis Opera opened its 40th season with Giuseppe Verdi's 26th opera, "Aida," a performance that emphasized the music of this grand opera in an intimate setting that made a full staging impossible.

Marking his 30th season as artistic director, Ronald J. Gretz chose to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Verdi's birth with the composer's monumental work in concert form.

In contrast to the dazzling spectacle of a fully staged "Aida," we enjoyed the glorious music in the smaller Maryland Hall setting. With such a staging, we could better concentrate on the love triangle at the center of the story — between Egyptian princess Amneris, her slave Aida and the heroic Egyptian soldier Radames.

Suspecting Radames' hidden love for her slave, Amneris coaxes Aida — who is actually an Ethiopian princess — to acknowledge her feelings for him. When Radames returns victorious from defeating the Ethiopians, the Egyptian king offers his daughter as Radames' bride. And at the victory celebration, Aida discovers that her father, Amonasro, the king of Ethiopia, is a prisoner. Radames persuades the Egyptian king to free Amonasro, who in turn spies on his daughter's meeting with Radames to discover the route his army will take in battle.

The crucial triumphal scene of "Aida" requires the drama of a double chorus, which for Annapolis Opera's production was ably provided by members of the Morgan State University Choir.

Most notably contributing to the fullness of sound, stunning drama and nuanced emotion of Verdi's masterwork were the musicians of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Gretz.

From principals to supporting roles, all voices met every challenge: striking young tenor Patrick Cook, who sang the Messenger role; baritone David Salsbery Fry, who soared powerfully as Ramfis, the High Priest; and Emily Ezzie as the High Priestess.

The rich, lustrous voice of bass-baritone Robert Cantrell shone as the Egyptian king. Known for lending substance to local opera productions, Cantrell headed Opera AACC's cast in Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi" in 2008.

Another sonorous voice was displayed by returning baritone Jerrett Giesler, who was a memorable Scarpia in Annapolis Opera's 2010 "Tosca." As Amonasro, Giesler was the last to arrive on the scene after the "Triumphal March" and immediately dazzled with his gorgeous, full sound and display of seemingly effortless power.

As Radames, tenor Michael Wade Lee again proved an Annapolis Opera favorite, as he did last May as the leading man in Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet." This season, Lee returned to dazzle us anew in a more demanding role requiring enormous presence as a military leader, and the convincing ardor and commitment to Aida that forces him to risk everything for her.

As Radames, Lee delivered an ardent and tender "Celeste Aida" with ringing high notes of power and beauty to establish early in Act I his consuming love of Aida.

In Act III, Radames' duet with Aida moves the plot forward as Radames describes their life together with Aida as his queen — an unlikely prospect, Aida reminds him, given Amneris' expectations. Aida persuades Radames to leave the country for a blissful life together, a dream interrupted by betrayal and the arrest of Radames.

In a later Radames/Amneris duet, Amneris tries to save Radames, pleading with him "to live and love me," which he finds impossible, infuriating her and sealing his fate. This dramatic duel of love and hate, life and death, was fully realized in the magnificent singing of both principals.

Soprano Adrienne Danrich offered a credible portrayal of Aida, seeming most comfortable in vocal midrange. She rose to all challenges of the opening trio with Amneris and Radames, and Danrich's poignant delivery of Aida's prayer was touching, as was her recognition of her captured warrior father. Danrich expressed Aida's selfless love for Radames in her tender farewell after joining him in the tomb.

Mezzo soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, as Amneris, delivered a fully nuanced portrayal, alternately sensuously cooing in warm, honeyed tones and soaring regally in her outrage at Radames' attraction to Aida. In her Act III duet with Radames, Quintero was spellbinding and dramatically compelling as she pleaded with and berated him in her futile attempt to persuade him to love her and live.

Finally, appreciative bravos are due Gretz, who continues to meet all challenges inherent in grand opera while delivering new budding opera stars.

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