Photo by Cory Weaver

The popularity of Verdi's Aida has always been a bit of a mystery to me and long ago I decided it must be due to its size, which obviously matters at least to some people some of the time. But everything "good" about it can be found in other works by the composer that to my mind are much more successful and interesting. The Triumphal March, arguably the biggest moment in the opera, isn't nearly as thrilling as Don Carlo's "Auto Da Fe." Musically, the opera's most exciting parts sound like recycled Rigoletto. The love triangle/conflict isn't nearly as compelling as Otello's or La Traviata's and its patriotism is more interestingly illustrated in a host of others. In other words, Aida is second-rate Verdi. Someone has to say it, may as well be me.

The thing that grates on me, making the idea of watching Aida onstage just shy of ridiculous, is that major U.S. houses seem incapable to stage it in any way other than with the most straightforward of productions. There must be an elephant, there must be a set which looks like Luxor and Giza, the costumes have to look like Cleopatra. It's always so predictable. The rub however, is the music's complete incongruity with all of it. Certainly this is true of other operas, Nabucco being a prime example, but the sheer scale of Aida, its immense proportions, makes it all the more absurd. We've seen and heard all of these elements before, but they're easier to accept (or ignore) when there isn't an elephant on the stage (this is the version of Aida I'd like to see).

On the bright side, there's a first rate production of this sort now sprawling across the stage at San Francisco Opera. There's been a lot of commentary about production designer Zandra Rhodes' use of color in the sets and costumes, but the reality is she's pretty spot on when it comes to what this stuff should look like. If you've ever visited Luxor and looked at the parts of the temple which haven't baked in the Egyptian sun for  5000 years you realize the entire temple complex was one riot of outrageous colors. Besides, the last production of Rhodes' seen here (The Pearl Fishers) was a similar piece of bright and shiny eye candy.

The singing is big. It's not always pretty, but it's always big. Making her local debut, Micaela Carosi's Aida started out a little leathery at first (perhaps the effects of a six day break after opening night) and then grew warm if never really captivating. Her account of "Ritorna vincitor" oddly drew no applause, something that seems to have happened on opening night as well. Though she's performed the role at several major houses internationally, I'm not sure it's that well-suited for her. I'd be more interested in seeing her as Desdemona or Amelia.

Marcello Giordani's Radames was another large voice that filled the house, and it's a very Italian one at that, but it's not a unique voice nor one of nuance and he struggled in the early "Celeste Aida" to the point where it had little charm. After that early misfire he hit his stride and remained there for the rest of the night, delivering a very straightforward, by-the-book performance that, like his appearance here in Luisa Miller in 2000, I probably won't be able to recall with any clarity by the season's end.

Marco Vratogna's Amonasro has a nice tone, and can convey rage with it quite well, as he did in last year's Otello, but I swear I couldn't make out a single syllable of what he was singing. Vratogna's acting was the strongest of the cast, who mostly seemed willing to let the staging and costumes do the heavy lifting.

Speaking of heavy lifting, when two supernumeraries appeared onstage with sticks and put them under the chair of Dolora Zajik's Amneris, I thought the poor bastards were going to have to carry her off the stage on it- you know, like they do in that Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie that also takes place in Egypt.. Thankfully, SFO was spared what would have definitely been hefty insurance claims and for no reason at all these two just marched around with the chair before eventually making their exit. Just some busy work to keep the audience's mind off the fact that for huge stretches of this opera nothing really happens at all. Yes, of course, the reigning Amneris of the day sang well and sang big. I'm just not that much of a fan of hers. She's like Patricia Racette to me- I know a lot of people think she's wonderful but she really doesn't do much for me. I would love to see Michelle De Young in this role instead (see link above).

Hao Jiang Tian's Ramfis was excellent and another very big voice with the added bonus of great stage presence. Christian Van Horn's local debut as the King was a similar success).

Not surprisingly, the chorus got a lot opportunities to shine and certainly made the most of them. This is the finest I've heard them in years and that bodes very well for this summer's Gotterdammerung. In the pit, Luisotti conducted with a temperance he rarely exhibits, even though he was spinning around like a gyroscope at times. The orchestra sounded consistent but at no point did anything really become musically exciting. The Triumphal March well choreographed and featured some wonderful, though incongruous, dancing. However, it was seriously marred by some horrendous trumpet playing that approached the pain threshold.

The elephant was very beautifully rendered.

It's playing a million more times and with an entirely different cast beginning in November. The next cast may be even better than this one except the Amneris is a (so far) lower-profile singer who will make it either sink into the Nile or surprise everyone by gliding down it on a felucca. Or something like that.