Ta'u Pupu'a and soprano Michelle Johnson in a scene from Opera… (David Bazemore )
This is the time to start a discussion of "Aida."
A view of ancient Egypt from the perspective of the 19th century — Verdi was commissioned to write the opera as part of the celebrations of the opening of the Suez Canal — "Aida" forecasts a Middle East we recognize today, one in which religious fundamentalism, militarism and popular uprisings are dangerously incompatible.
Opera Santa Barbara didn't have to stretch operatic truth terribly far to pluck images of Arab Spring on Sunday afternoon, for the second of the two performances of its apt new production of "Aida" at the Granada Theater.
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The company is the first off the "Aida" mark, and those in the audience who could be heard grumbling about a scene of waterboarding in Verdi will have other options.
We have entered into a big Verdi year, which celebrates the 200th birthday of Italy's greatest opera composer, and for some reason "Aida" is the Southern California Verdi of choice among his 29 operas. San Diego mounts it next month. Gustavo Dudamel will conduct a concert performance at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic summer season. (Only Los Angeles Opera bucks the trend with Verdi's "Falstaff" at year's end).
Not just first off the mark, Opera Santa Barbara has also put a lot on the line with this "Aida." The 19-year-old company is not known for taking risks, yet it selected Francesca Zambello's controversial new production, which opened the Glimmerglass Festival last summer in upstate New York.
Zambello's aim was not only to reveal the currency of "Aida" but also to emphasize the powerful intimacy of a drama that sometimes gets overlooked in favor of its spectacle. That suited Opera Santa Barbara, in that the company isn't quite yet in the business of bringing in live elephants for the famous triumphal scene in which the population of Thebes comes out to celebrate an Egyptian victory over invading Ethiopians.
Instead, the production takes place in a bombed out palace of indistinct appearance. Lee Savage's design looked like a distressed set from an old production of, say, "The Barber of Seville" that had been gnawed on by termites.
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Bibhu Mohapatra's costumes also looked to have been plucked from this or that old production. The Egyptian king wore the oddest outfit, which included pantaloons. His daughter Amneris favored glittery formal modern gowns, as if she were on her way to the Oscars. Aida, the Ethiopian slave, wore a long white number, looking as though she had been captured on the way to her wedding.
Zambello did not come along with her production; Michael Rau directed this revival. Michelle Johnson repeated her intensely dramatic Aida from the Glimmerglass production, but the cast was otherwise new, made up of emerging singers.
Sad to say, that all added up to the feeling at first of amateur hour. Little worked, either in concept or performance. The ragtag Egyptian army attempted the displays of brutality. The priests attempted bland religious fervor.
Radamès, the Egyptian hero, was sung by Ta'u Pupu'a, a tenor from Tonga who played for the Cleveland Browns before suffering a foot injury and exchanging the NFL for the Juilliard School. He has a powerful voice (how could he not?), but he was, in his opening aria, "Celeste Aida," awkward on stage and musically unsubtle and uncertain.
Johnson's soprano is big, too, if more confident. Catherine Martin, who was Amneris, has a full, rich voice but was asked to use it to portray a spoiled brat. Kevin Thompson was an imposing Ramfis, the intolerable priest, but as Egypt's king Christopher Remmel wasn't kingly. There was a lot of flag waving during the triumphal scene. There was dancing, too, choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel. It's part of the opera but didn't belong in this production.
More people in the restive audience left after intermission than I'd ever seen leave a performance of this irresistible opera, no matter how crummy the production or performance.
They made a mistake. The last two of the opera's four acts are intimate, exposing the wrenching personal dramas of torn loyalties. Aida and Radamès share a forbidden love. Amneris also loves Radamès. Aida's father — the captured Ethiopian king Amonasro, commandingly sung by Norman Garrett — has his own issues and tricks Radamès into spilling state secrets.
Suddenly intensity entered the performance. Pupu'a began to show vocal mettle. Johnson offered a significant display of attitude. Martin's Amneris took on enough depth of feeling to ultimately, and unexpectedly, make her the standout of the performance.