With help from co-producers Houston Grand Opera and English National Opera, SFO pulled out the bells, whistles and any number of kitchen sinks for this circus-level spectacle of Verdi's great power-play. They also brought in some hugely strong voices for their love triangle.
When my companion asked me about Marcello Giordano's acting, I realized that I had stopped caring about the time he set off into Radames' "Celeste Aida" in Act I. Giordano's tenor is a searing lirico spinto, delivered with tremendous power and an almost uncontainable energy. I found myself cursing Verdi for not giving Radames more set pieces.
The acting comes mostly from mezzo Dolora Zajick, whose voice is just as powerful as Giordano's. From the moment that Zajick delivers the wonderful line "God help him if he loves another," she takes Amneris's juicy conflicts and runs with them, turning her performance into a veritable personality parade: one moment the eager young girl chasing her adored warrior, the next the vindictive princess who will take any measure to punish those who have the bad taste not to return her affections.
Equipped with conflicts just as rich - in love with the general of the country that enslaves her - our Aida didn't fare quite so well. Soprano Micaela Carosi gives a vague acting performance, and her voice is equally inconsistent - capable of great expressiveness (particularly in her tenderly sustained end-notes) but often pushed too hard into an overwide vibrato. The intended showpiece of Aida's "Ritorna vincitor!" gives way in the memory to the lightning storm of Amneris and Radames' final-act duet, beginning with "Gia i sacerdoti adunasi."
Another fiery presence is baritone Marco Vratogna, who plays Aida's father Amonasro. Vratogna's voice has a wonderful edge to it, and he plays Aida's father with the bottled intensity of a caged tiger.
The victory celebration is truly spectacular, featuring six onstage herald trumpeters, a team of gymnasts, a thrilling acrobatic dance solo from Damon Mahoney, and solo dancer Chiharu Shibata leading a troupe of superb child dancers from the Pampa Dance Company. The production offers the illusion of Radames' victory elephant through a magnificent job of puppetry and choreography, and the dessert topping is a rain of golden confetti. Kudos to stage director Jo Davies for keeping this scene clicking.
Zandra Rhodes' production design takes the familiar iconography of Egypt and delivers it in the bright colors of a children's crayon book, depending largely on enormous panels to create the opera's many spaces. The costumes get pretty wild, as well, beginning with the golden hooped skirts of the temple attendants, their bald heads scribbled with lightning bolts of baby blue.
The great energy of Nicola Luisotti and his orchestra made the most of Verdi's barrage, turning the constant rain of sforzando and marcato strokes into a hail of musical hand grenades. The great vivacity of the performance instilled a bit of ADD in the audience, making the final-act trial of Radames seem glacial in comparison.
One of the lovelier perks of the SFO press packet is a list of singers who have performed the opera in previous productions. In this case, I'll take the 1959 cast of Leontyne Price, Irene Dalis, Mario del Monaco and George London (although the 1981 Price/Pavarotti pairing is certainly tempting).
Through October 6 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$320, 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com. Free simulcast Sept. 24 at AT&T Park.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," available at amazon.com.
Image: Marco Vratogna as Amonasro. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of seventeen novels, including The Popcorn Girl and Billy Saddle. His poetry has appeared in more than 100 journals, and he works as a competitions judge for Writer's Digest. He lives in San Jose, and plays drums for the San Francisco rock band Exit Wonderland.