Verdi's Aida, perhaps the most iconic of grand operas, doesn't demand too much. Only half a dozen or so amply gifted singers with an unusual capacity for technical and interpretive depth, a big-league chorus and orchestra, scenery that can live up to the visual expectations of a work set in ancient Egypt, and an all-encompassing sense of style. No wonder the piece doesn't come around every day. And when it does, chances for disappointment invariably run high.
The Baltimore Opera Company's new production faces those odds head on and, for the most part, succeeds handsomely. Light-years ahead of the almost amusingly provincial staging offered eight years ago, this Aida is one of the most satisfying efforts I've seen from the company.
Subtract a point for a vocal shortcoming here or for a directorial decision there, and Saturday's opening night at the Lyric Opera House still added up to quite an experience. To be sure, anyone hoping for a demonstration of Stanislavski-worthy acting would have gone home feeling shortchanged (lots of outstretched arms and hands on heads). But the cast was uniformly into the music, no one more compellingly so than tenor Antonello Palombi as Radames, the Egyptian warrior torn between ambition and love.
Palombi, who is becoming something of a Baltimore Opera regular (a trend I heartily encourage), sang with great respect for Verdi's intentions, especially when it came to high, soft notes, including the B-flat at the end of Celeste Aida that many a tenor blasts through unthinkingly. Palombi approached that note softly, then did a leisurely crescendo and diminuendo on it, a remarkable touch. He didn't come off of the note as cleanly as he started it, but that was a small price to pay for such a welcome demonstration of interpretive nuance.
Throughout the evening, the tenor revealed a palpable connection to words and a keen appreciation for the contour and import of Verdi's vocal lines. Although capable of summoning abundant, often quite electrifying volume, Palombi was most impressive, as in his previous visits, for the wide dynamic variety he produced.
Tiziana Caruso's singing as Aida, the enslaved Ethiopian princess who captures Radames' heart, proved less interesting. Still, her dark, low register had a certain vividness, and she tapped into the emotional heart of the role, particularly in Act 3. Greater control and subtlety in the upper register would have greatly enhanced her performance.
Veteran soprano Giovanna Casolla moved into the mezzo role of Amneris, Aida's rival for Radames, and brought to it considerable intensity of expression. Low notes turned indistinct at times, and a pronounced vibrato occasionally got in the way, but there was no mistaking the voice of stylistic authority.
Mark Rucker's commanding artistry - a hefty combination of tone, temperament and taste - animated the role of Aida's proud and vengeful father, Amonasro. He pushed his baritone hard for the angry outbursts, but rarely turned harsh, and he lavished beautiful, seamless phrasing on the lyrical passages in his Act 3 duet with Caruso.
Ashley Howard Wilkinson revealed a deep, resonant bass as Ramfis, the Egyptian high priest. Jamie Offenbach could have used some of that vocal weight as the Egyptian King. Sara Stewart delivered the offstage prayer of the Priestess in a warm, penetrating tone. The chorus did generally firm, responsive work. An errant brass entrance aside, the orchestra also came through solidly. Vladimir Lande's truly songful oboe solo added greatly to Caruso's account of O patria mia.
As usual, Andrea Licata conducted with a passionate, yet sensitive, touch. He maintained a fundamental propulsion, but often stretched a phrase for poetic effect (I wish he'd done a lot more of that in the final scene).
Designer/director Paolo Micciche, creating his third Baltimore Opera production, once again substitutes digital projections for traditional sets, an approach that certainly keeps the eye engaged, but has become rather predictable by this point.
Some of the images here are unhelpfully suggestive of vintage cartoon art; others are perhaps too literal for their own good. More in the way of abstract designs might be a sensible match for this technology, even in conjunction with the luxuriant, mostly traditional costumes by Alberto Spiazzi.
One idea in the staging that could use more imagination: a ballet sequence that has dancers sporting large wings ringed with fiber-optic lights as they carry out a bargain-basement Busby Berkeley butterfly routine. The scene doesn't measure up to the rest of the evening.
IF YOU GO
Aida will be performed at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday (Virginia Todisco and Efe Kislali sing the roles of Aida and Radames that night) and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $44-$141. Half-price balcony seats ($30) are being offered for Saturday's performance. Call 410-727-6000 or go to baltimoreopera.com.