Wednesday, February 02, 2011


For the last week in January, Sam Shirakawa was back in his European base, Cologne:

VERDI : AIDA (New Production) Cologne
28-29 January 2008

©Monika & Earl Foster

This past weekend, I attended a new production of Aida on two consecutive nights in Cologne with separate sets of principals. (Has that ever been done elsewhere?) Despite Oper Cologne’s financial problems, the orchestra and chorus was augmented, and the crowd scenes in Johannes Erath‘s staging were filled with enough extras to mount a rally against Mubarak's government. In fact, Erath sagely integrated the sell-out audiences by having parts of the crowd in the Triumphal Scene milling around the aisles at the sides of the house, before they rushed onto the stage. Despite some bewildering interpolations, such as framing the action in a Roman Catholic setting, Erath achieved spumante spectacle on a Birra Beba budget.

©Monika & Earl Foster

Of course, huge crowd scenes cannot obscure Aida's need for principal singers who can pour their part of the bubbly. Cologne lucked out in engaging two classy sopranos of vastly differing temperaments in the title role. Hui He has sung Santuzza, Maddalena and Odabella throughout the world. She made her debut as Aida last year at the Met. Adina Aaron has portrayed the Countess, Rosalinda and Susannah in Europe and recently was Bess at the New York City Opera. Both brought the requiste dynamic range to their performances. Both triumphed in “Ritornor Vincitor” and soared over the orchestra and chorus in the big production numbers. But both had problems getting past the treacherous high C that caps “O patria mia.” Aaron hit the note but it was squally. Hui He went slightly flat.

Hui He had better luck in partners than Aaron in being paired with Scott McAlister as Rhadames. Some members of the audience told me at intermission, that they didn’t cotton to his voice. I like the bright, brassy sound, but find it better suited for Wagner, Strauss and Orff. Nonetheless, he was in command right from the start and never tired. He hit the final B flat in “Celeste Aida” softly, (though not quite piano) and swelled into thrilling forte. Vsevolod Grivnov, seemed to be husbanding his resources during the first half of his performance, before relaxing into some rhapsodic vocalism in the second half. His Rhadames, though, is given to declamation, when simple declaration is called for.

House favorite Daliah Schaechter and Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Jovita Vaskeviciute also presented a stark contrast in styles. Schaechter‘s Amneris was cunning and neurotic. Vaskeviciute‘s was icy and shrewish. She has the larger voice but tripped on a line or two in the Judgment Scene.

Samuel Youn and Jorge Lagunes were both rhythmically as exact as they were exciting in portraying Amonasro. But Erath, for some reason, had them both tear off their shirts as they menaced the King (Wilfried Staber at both performances) in the Triumphal Scene. Keep your shirts on, boys! And take a tip or two from former Cologne resident Arnold Schwarzenegger on how to get rid of those pesky spare tires.

Mikhail Kazakov and Roman Polisadov shared Ramfis. They are among a formidable group of basses from the former Eastern Bloc, who are enabling opera houses west of the Oder to mount vocally creditable performances of bass-heavy Russian opera. They offered a lot to choose between them: Polisadov is a tall Godunov type -- resonant at the top, bold at the bottom. Kazakov sounds Gremin-directed -- large, lyric and irresistably sympathetic.

Will Humburg‘s flexible tempi kept both performances going at an agreeable pace. But his major achievement was in keeping the off-stage chorus and bands in sync with everybody else. The unseen musical assistants who helped him prevent chaos deserved a curtain call.

©Monika & Earl Foster

You might think that seeing any opera on consecutive nights would be tiring for the spectator, but the energy coursing through these occasions was galvanizing. All the more noteworthy because these were the ninth and tenth of an 11-performance run over merely two weeks.

Sam H. Shirakawa

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