Both casts of WNO's current production of Verdi's Aida provide a great night at the opera.
But it's worth noting the alternate cast, which WNO labels as the "B" cast to distinguish between them, has a very different emotional center than the "A" cast I saw on opening night. In the first cast, the drama revolves around Ekaterina Semenchuk's vicious and fiery Amneris. While her character's dream is ultimately thwarted, Semenchuk's dominant performance made the hapless lovers Radames (Yonghoon Lee) and Aida (Tamara Wilson) seem like pawns in her game. Both Lee and Wilson are excellent in these roles, but the standout performance is Semenchuk's, making her WNO debut, in a role she sang in San Francisco when this production debuted last year.
In the second cast, Marina Prudenskaya also makes her company debut as Amneris, and her interpretation shifts the dramatic center to the lovers, portrayed by Carl Tanner and Leah Crocetto (who performed opposite Semenchuk in San Francisco, but not at WNO). Crocetto stepped into the cast late as a replacement for Amber Wagner, who withdrew in August for personal reasons. Even as a late replacement, it's hard to view any cast featuring Crocetto and Tanner as a "B" of any kind: Crocetto possesses one of the finest voices of her generation. However, the raves she receives for her vocal abilities are usually accompanied with an acknowledgement that her stage presence and acting abilities aren't always in the same league. Good news -- based on the performance I witnessed it looks like that's beginning to change, albeit more slowly than I would like. As the imprisoned part of the opera's love triangle, the character of Aida doesn't have a lot of action moments, but I've seen Crocetto sing at least half a dozen times and never has she seemed more invested in a role as she is here. Combine that with her large, crystal clear voice, and a bit of stage chemistry with Tanner's Radames, and the "B" cast's lovers create their own moments on the Kennedy Center's stage in a way the "A" cast doesn't quite match, especially in their final scene together.
As a local guy from the other side of the Potomac with an amazing backstory (he was once a big-rig truck driver and part-time bounty hunter), Tanner is one of those singers who engenders the audience's goodwill before he's even sung a single note, but that wouldn't mean much if he didn't deliver, and he consistently does. My companion and I split on who made the more compelling Radames, Lee or Tanner. I found Lee's vocals in the role to be of greater range and more lustrous, but Tanner inhabits the role will fuller dramatic fervor, and, as I noted above, he and Crocetto have that chemistry thing in greater quantity than Lee and Wilson, despite their tendency to occasionally park and bark under the direction of WNO's Artistic Director Francesca Zambello.
What I'm left to wonder, as I'm sure others will who sees both casts, is how this production would look and sound with Semenchuk and Crocetto onstage at the same time? Prudenskaya's performance, while certainly fine vocally if not especially hefty (she struggled to be heard in some scenes, such as in Act 1's trio), is bizarre to watch. Her Amneris seems haunted, paranoid, and out of control (the opposite of Semenchuk's steely portrayal), and not in a way that illuminates the character in a way that was clear to me. Instead, she seems to have walked on to the set of a 1930's melodrama, creating a portrayal overly reliant on exaggerated facial expressions and strange looks.
As was the case on opening night, Evan Rogister led the orchestra in a performance favoring the singers, with the rest of the cast performing quite well (especially Morris Robinson as Ramfis and Soloman Howard's King) in the visually arresting RETNA/Michael Yeager production. Jessica Lang's first act ballets were even better a second time around.
Remaining performances on September 21 & 23, featuring Lee as Radames, Wilson as Aida, with Prudenskaya on 9/21 and Semenchuk on 9/23. Read the review from opening night here.
Pictured above: Leah Crocetto and Carl Tanner.
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