You can find little faults in Opera Carolina's new production of Verdi's Aïda – in the set design, the choreography, and a couple of the minor singers – but all that melted away on opening night at Belk Theater once all the principals warmed up and the drama reached full throttle. The company's 65th season opened in grand style with OC general director and principal conductor James Meena in the pit leading a hefty chunk of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra while the Opera Carolina Chorus was augmented by the Johnson C. Smith University Choir. When the great Act II triumphal march began, the trumpets seemed to be everywhere, and I couldn't be sure where offstage they came from. No fewer than three trumpet players soon stood alongside the chorus welcoming the victorious Radames and his captives, so Meena likely augmented the Symphony's brass corps as well.
The production builds incrementally to that peak and retains peak quality afterwards. Scenery for the opening royal palace scene is rather flat, though scenic designer Roberto Oswald has ornately and stylishly carved his colossal gingerbread drops. The other interior scene, where the wily Princess Amneris learns that Aïda is her rival for Radames's love, has little more than two crisscrossing sheer white curtains filling the stage along with a chaise lounge. What grandeur we perceive here is largely the result of Annibal Lapiz's resplendent costume designs and Michael Baumgarten's lighting. Far more splendiferous are the outdoor scenes, where Oswald gives us far more expansive depth with imposing representations of Ptah the creator god and his temple. Lighting for the Act I consecration scene is kissed with the rosy iridescence of dawn, and the Act III denouement, where Radames unwittingly betrays Egypt – Aïda can claim some wiliness of her own – glimmers with starry midnight magic. Altogether, a smartly economical approach.
Meena and the orchestra don't match the refinement that we hear, from the Preludio onwards, with Von Karajan and the Vienna Phil on their EMI recording, but they're equally passionate and memorably deliver all the score's brassy blare and percussive punch. You'll realize that this has the makings of a very special evening as soon as tenor Antonello Palombi, in his OC debut as Radames, launches into his "Celeste Aïda." The voice is pure as spring water with a pleasing plaintiveness, and unlike Antonio Nagore, who sang the role here in 2008, Palombi has secure command of his full range from his beguiling pianissimo to his rather startling fortissimo – with an artistry that matches his instrument. Nor did his strength flag in a production that clocked in at 2' 25" plus intermission. He's more the passionate lover than the wooden Nagore, and since he's not quite as attractive as Jonas Kaufman and looks somewhat lopsided as he sings, Charlotteans can reasonably hope to see Palombi for many years to come without the big recording companies stealing him away with their star-making machines.
We may not be so fortunate with Othalie Graham, making her Belk Theater debut, who reminded me a little of Leontyne Price both before and after she secured a handle on her imposing vibrato. There was no shortage of strength to the voice, piercing through the orchestra, the chorus, and the full phalanx of principals at the climax of the grand parade scene. Yet there is a bloom to Graham's pianissimos that Price doesn't match in her Decca recording with Solti, and there is also ample evidence of diva acting skills. At various times, we see her clearly as both royalty and a serving girl, without a jarring disconnect between the two. Mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura's slightly abrasive vibrato seems perfectly suited to the imperious Amneris, reminding me very vividly of the Dolora Zajick performance I saw in Verona but without quite so much spitfire energy. That's not a bad thing, since I didn't have to remind myself that Amneris is Pharaoh's daughter and not his queen.
Talk about a vibrato, Sun Yu's, as Ramfis is as wide and deep as the Nile, altogether appropriate for the stern priest. The other comprimario men aren't served nearly as well. Baxter Nash, in his OC debut as the Messenger, needs more seasoning, and Sean Cooper, who also played Pharaoh in 2008, hasn't improved. Xela Pinkerton is far more to my liking, soaring over the soft choral accompaniment – with an effective mixture of sternness and delicacy – as the High Priestess. We can class the ever-reliable baritone Mark Rucker among the principal players, or we can accuse him of crass scene stealing as King Amonasro, Aïda's mighty Ethiopian father. Gosh, he's wonderful browbeating Aïda to obedience in the climactic moonlit scene. But all the principals play well with one another, so that once Amonasro rejoins the action, one scintillating duet follows another for the rest of the evening – plus a nice quintet marking the end of Act III. I'd rather not see Rucker decked out as such a wildman that he brings Hagrid of Hogwarts to mind, but it certainly magnifies his fearsome impact.
Brian Deedrick's stage direction nudges us only slightly in the direction of melodrama, a nice compromise between the perils of superficiality and sentimental excess that Aïda should steer clear of. And if Deedrick countenances too much primitivism in the presentation of Amonasro, he counterbalances it nicely in the colorful scene of triumph ending Act II before our intermission. No elephants are in the parade like I saw outdoors in Verona, nor the camel, zebra, and great white steed that commemorated Egypt's victory over the Ethiopians at Belk Theater five years ago. Only the filthy wretches dragged into captivity. Until that point, Eric Sean Fogel's choreography in the earlier consecration scene has been drab and dull. Now the dancers break loose, first the victorious Egyptians, so jubilant that their celebration culminates in a couple of breakouts of twerking! What could be more shocking than this when the captives get their turn? Merely murder and human sacrifice. No, this isn't a purely sentimental Aïda, and we can be grateful for it, crackling with powerful lovers and outsized emotions.
Aïda continues October 24 and 27. For details, see the sidebar.