Last night I attended the closing night of Vancouver Opera’s 2011-2012 season. While Vancouver Opera is not a particularly big company (4 productions a year), they certainly pulled out all the stops for their production of Verdi’s Aida. All the roles were cast with up-and-coming stars, and though the production was rather tame, it was an exciting night.
Mlada Khudoley, the Russian soprano, sang Aida. Khudoley is a soprano who sings roles such as Renata in Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco. When I saw her repertoire, I expected the worst – how can a singer who makes her career singing these voice-killers make an effective Aida? Thankfully, I was proved wrong. Her voice is certainly large, and she completely dominated the ensemble in the Act II finale. However, she had equally effective pianissimi, and while she did not have the messa di voce or floaty high notes of Caballe, she was very effective in Acts III and IV. Her ‘O patria mia’ was excellent, and she managed to not only hit the dreaded high C but also crescendoed the note very nicely. She is not the best actress, but only rarely did her acting appear old-fashioned. She was well matched by Arnold Rawls as Radames, who has made a career singing the heroic Verdi roles. His voice is not particularly large and has little squillo, but it is warm and can be heard easily. He is an excellent musician with very instinctive phrasing and some interesting ideas, such as taking ‘del mio pensiero, tu sei regina’ in Celeste Aida in one breath. Again, he was not the most natural actor, but Radames is hardly a complex role anyways.
The lower voices were all very well cast, particularly Quinn Kelsey as Amonasro. He has in his active repertoire almost all the major Verdi baritone roles, and in a time where old-fashioned voices are rare, he has the ability to simultaneously sound like Bastianini or Warren while making his own interpretive choices. Although his role was short, he was incredibly effective dramatically while maintaining a perfect legato line. He is apparently already a great Rigoletto, and I look forward to hearing what roles he takes on next. Morris Robinson was Ramfis, and it was great to hear the bass line of the ensemble so clearly. Beside him, Ilya Bannik as the King seemed somewhat insignificant, which can be taken as a valid dramatic interpretation.
Best of the cast was Daveda Karanas as Amneris. She is not a typical chesty Verdi mezzo in the style of Cossotto or Simionato – in fact, I would say that her voice is more comparable to Verrett or Antonacci (who I don’t believe has sung the role). Her singing was flawless – her voice has an edge to it that allows her to phrase and lighten her tone without being covered by the orchestra. Interestingly enough, she has a stronger upper register than lower register, which meant that she improved as the show went on, capping it off with an intense judgement scene with a long high A. What was most impressive about her performance was the detail she put into her vocal acting – without even watching her on stage, you could tell exactly what her character was thinking and how she was feeling. Instead of Amneris as the raving bitch, she portrayed her as a young, spoiled princess who does not realize the implications of her actions until she realized that she has essentially killed her lover. All this came across through her voice, and coupled with her intense acting and excellent stage presence made for a thrilling performance. In the next season, she will be singing Bartok’s Judith, Wagner’s Brangaene, and covering Berlioz’s Cassandre at the Met. Hopefully she will take on more falcon roles and eventually take on roles such as Berlioz’s Marguerite, Cassandre, and Didon, Meyerbeer’s Fides, Cherubini’s Medee, Massenet’s Charlotte, Verdi’s Eboli and Lady Macbeth, and eventually maybe even a Kundry. Definitely a name to watch.
Jonathan Darlington conducted the Vancouver Opera Orchestra with sensitivity, especially emphasizing the rhythmic and rather aggressive brass sections. The chorus sang very well and blended well with the orchestra, and the Messenger and the High Priestess were excellent as well. The production was rather minimalist and inoffensive, but there was little interaction between the characters and chorus was essentially instructed to stand in a row and sing. The choreography by noted ballerina Chan Hon Goh was a little bit too faux-oriental, but well-executed.
I went to the performance with a friend of mine, who was thrilled by the sheer sound of the voices. While she found the story artificial, she found it exciting to hear the full impact of unamplified voices. Perhaps this idea that young people are only interested in realistic stories is not entirely true – opera can hopefully appeal to the teenage admiration of sheer spectacle.