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Where are we, Aida? Is this the Luxor?

Tacky Egyptian pillars are just the start for Opera Pacific.

April 20, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"AiDA" abuse has not, alas, been licked. It may not be as pervasive or as severe as it was 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago, but incidents aren't uncommon. One occurred Tuesday night in Costa Mesa.

No other opera this great, I think it's safe to say, has endured so much silliness, so many indignities. But "Aida," a late Verdi masterpiece with a striking relevance to our time, is a long sufferer and suffers still.

Opera Pacific, it appears, has gone to some trouble and expense with a new production at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, one originally created for Opera de Montreal. It is ancient evenings all over again. Sets by Claude Girard and Bernard Uzan are typical ticky-tacky Egyptian pillars. Girard's costumes come via a Las Vegas Luxor sensibility.

Perhaps most intriguing about the production is the presence of Angela Brown as Aida and Carl Tanner as Radames. Both stars have notable back stories that have gotten them lots of press. Brown worked her way up from gospel to the Metropolitan Opera, where she made front page news substituting in "Aida." Tanner's career trajectory has been truck driver and bounty hunter to lyric stage.

Neither, though, in this production directed by Michele Assaf, exhibited a feel for the stage. Assaf, a choreographer with a background in Broadway and pop music shows, either left singers to their own devices, or she decided to try an experiment in theatrical period practice: Stand. Sing. Wave arms to express emotion.

Brown exhibited power. She also exhibited choppy phrasing and a tight but ever-present vibrato that muffled pitch and reduced the impact of Verdi's affecting chromatic writing. Tanner proved a more blatant than gallant Radames.

Tuesday was not without strong singing. Milena Kitic made a powerful Amneris, the princess who also loves Radames. She may have nibbled on the scenery a bit too much, but that was in keeping with the production, and her rich, velvety tone and ability to portray a depth of emotion meant she dwarfed all around her. Donnie Ray Albert, as Amonasro, captured king of Ethiopia and Aida's father, also proved a commanding, powerful presence and an inspiration to Brown, who best showed her promise in her duet with him. Andrew Gangestad was an unimposing Ramfis; Stefan Szkafarowsky, a wobbly king of Egypt.

There was updating, but only in Assaf's kitschy, athletic choreography with its touches of Broadway. I'll spare you the Triumphal March, the many extras trying hard to remember their steps, the large golden crocodile, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade analogy.

John DeMain's conducting, all business and little nuance, made me suspicious. I've heard better music making from him on many occasions. My guess is that DeMain, having a potential mess on his hands, is enough of a pro to know that his first responsibility was to maintain order. He did. The orchestra played without character or much color but stayed the course. The chorus was unspectacular but not incompetent.

As artistic director of this inconsistent company, DeMain's mission would, I hope, also include avoiding foolishness. Opera Pacific tickets do run as high as $191.


Opera Pacific

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $27 to $191

Info: (714) 556-2787;

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