At Saturday night's opening performance of Pittsburgh Opera's 75th anniversary season, the company showed it is better to give than to receive, offering a spectacular performance of Verdi's "Aida" more than fitting for the celebratory occasion.
The opera, originally intended to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal, takes place in Egypt, where Ethiopian princess-cum-captive Aida and Egyptian army leader Radames have fallen in love on opposite sides of warring countries. Their situation is further complicated by the efforts of the manipulative (but oh-so-human) Egyptian princess Amneris, who is Aida's romantic rival, and Ethiopian king Amonasro, Aida's father.
General director Christopher Hahn said Pittsburgh Opera started with "Aida" because it allowed the company to go all out for its diamond anniversary. The production was spectacular in the most literal sense of the word. The famous Triumphal March featured horses, a snake, dogs, a fidgety bird and a stoic Charlie Batch as the ceremonial "Champion of Champions." Beneath that almost biblical patina, though, it was the singing that stole the show.
As Aida, soprano Latonia Moore gave a performance as moving as it was virtuosic. In her opening aria ("Ritorna vincitor"), she achieved gritty lows and buttery highs. She had wonderful stage presence, seeming genuinely torn between her love of Ethiopia and of Radames. Although it took her some time to settle into pitches in a nostalgic "O patria mia," all was forgiven when she nailed the aria's famous high C.
Playing Aida's lover Radames, tenor Carl Tanner had a voice of gold. In "Celeste Aida," his command of notes in the upper register was remarkable, getting bigger the higher he went. He did, however, cut off the powerful last note too soon. His love duet with Ms. Moore was the highlight of the show, as Radames weighed the possibility of escaping with Aida. In the tomb scene, with Ms. Moore and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop as Amneris, his soft and delicate singing added emotional gravity.
For her part, Ms. Bishop was solid, getting stronger throughout the opera. Her voice was less distinctive than the other singers', but she was a sturdy counterpart in her duet with Ms. Moore and in the final scene, singing above Aida and Radames' tomb.
As Amonasro, baritone Lester Lynch had a big and gravelly voice, perhaps the most natural and confident in a cast that was hardly lacking those qualities. The moment he declared to Aida, "You are not my daughter!" was one of the more psychologically and musically satisfying in the performance.
Playing Ramfis, bass Oren Gradus, a Pittsburgh Opera Center alumnus, showed off full-bodied vocals, particularly during strong off-stage singing in the judgment scene. As the king, resident artist Phillip Gay displayed a beautiful (if not particularly hefty) voice.
The chorus sang stirringly in the grave temple scene and provided strong support throughout. Dancers from Attack Theatre gave artful performances of inventive choreography by Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza. Music director Antony Walker compellingly conducted the orchestra with former director Richard Karp's baton.
The company also welcomed back former directors Tito Capobianco and Mark Weinstein. Mr. Hahn announced a recital by opera superstar Renee Fleming that will take place Feb. 18 at Carnegie Music Hall. All told, the company looks pretty good in its old age.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1750 or Twitter @BloomPG. Blog: Measured Words at http://blogs.post-gazette.com/arts-entertainment/measured-words. First Published October 14, 2013 8:00 PM