The grandiose Opera Pacific production of Verdi's "Aida" gained a new heroine and a new hero Friday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. In the process, it gained flair as well as a certain degree of dramatic credibility.
Carol Neblett, who was undertaking the arduous title role for the first time in her career, looked lovely, acted with conviction and sang with increasing security as the evening progressed.
Tall, lithe and eminently sympathetic, she must be one of the most attractive--and most formidable--Aidas in history. She is an artist who throws herself almost recklessly into the action, one who actually listens when other characters are singing and reacts accordingly. She reacts, moreover, with her face and body, not just with her voice.
With better direction, she will no doubt learn to balance the duality of the role more equitably. Aida's tragedy, after all, lies in the fate that makes her a lowly slave as well as a lofty princess. Neblett's histrionic image will also be enhanced when she defines the crucial moments of repose and fusses less with her expressive hands.
Vocally, she is capable of fulfilling every one of Verdi's complex requirements. That places her in rarefied company among current spinto sopranos. At the outset, she displayed some of the danger signals that marred her career in recent seasons. Her tone, though bright and plangent, tended to turn sharp and fluttery, even edgy, under pressure. By the time she finished the extended, pleading phrases of "Ritorna vincitor," however, she had regained control.
She rode the massive climaxes of the Triumphal Scene with resplendent ease, floated an exquisite high C--pianissimo!--in a particularly introspective Nile Scene, and reinforced the pathos of "O, terra, addio" with shimmering tone and an arching legato. Her middle register sounded poised and uncommonly rich. If the lowest passages emerged a bit breathy, she at least deserved credit for avoiding the usual chesty distortions.
In all, this was a lovely, sensitive performance. And it can only get better.
The best thing to be said for Stefano Algieri, the new Radames, is that he was an improvement over his immediate predecessor in the role. He looked handsome, acted with a reasonable facsimile of heroic ardor and sang conscientiously. He also sang unmusically, some of the time, with constricted top notes, insecure pitch and recurring focus problems.
The familiar principals included Dolora Zajic as a phenomenally potent Amneris, Andrew Smith as a rather clumsy Amonasro and Eric Halfvarson as a tiring but still sonorous Ramfis. Anita Protich attracted positive attention in the offstage chant of the high priestess. John Mauceri conducted thoughtfully, and some of the sillier aspects of Nicholas Muni's staging had, thank goodness, been toned down.
The acoustical overkill that dampened delight--and raised the ugly specter of amplification--on opening night had been toned down, too. Don't ask me how.
The same cast, incidentally, brought a less grand version of the same production to the modest stage of the Bob Hope Cultural Center in Palm Desert on Sunday.