Opening night at the opera should be glamorous and opulent. The genre, defined by excess, demands an elaborate celebration. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours are required to put on a fully staged opera with ornate sets, costumes for a huge cast, highly skilled actor/singers, and a full orchestra in the pit. When done well, the spectacle of an opera is worth the hoopla.
On Friday night, a bejeweled, feathered, and furred crowd marched down the red carpet past photographers and into the Winspear opera house for the Dallas Opera's opening night production of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida and accompanying gala festivities. But the production couldn't keep up with the pomp.
Verdi's Aida is a dramatic 19th-century story of love and war set in ancient Egypt. Aida, a princess from Ethiopia, has been captured by Egyptians and is serving as handmaiden for the Pharaoh's daughter, Amneris. But the object of Amneris' affection, an army commander named Radames, is also Aida's secret lover.
To be sure, falling in love with a man who is actively seeking to conquer your homeland and kill your family and is also betrothed to your captor is an inconvenient development. But for Verdi, this intensely dramatic love triangle is perfect fodder for musical and dramatic indulgence.
Since its premier in Cairo in 1871, productions of Aida all over the world have been defined by a bigger-is-better mentality. The Metropolitan Opera in New York famously brings in live elephants for its lavish production. There are no live animals in The Dallas Opera's version; the set, which does include automated elements, is helped greatly by lighting designer Gary Marder's beautiful effects. Visually, Peter J. Hall's stunningly elaborate costumes are the most appealing element on stage. On my way out for intermission, one tuxedoed guest lamented the lack of spectacle: "Couldn't we at least have some camels?"
Ultimately it's the musical performance that makes or breaks an opera. Latonia Moore has received a lot of buzz leading up to her performance in this opera as Aida. Earlier this year, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the role, filling in for an ailing soprano. Compared to others on stage, her vocal performance stood out. Her voice has great strength and range, an impressive instrument to witness in a live performance. Throughout the opera, over a sometimes slightly over-bearing (but gorgeously shaped) orchestral performance, she capably maneuvered the demands of the repertoire.
But while technically the singers were "on" across the board, there was a general lack of tangible emotion from the cast on Friday night. Nadia Krasteva's version of Amneris was overly theatric and thoroughly unbelievable. As Radames, tenor Antonello Palombi didn't have chemistry with either of the women that nevertheless pined away for the duration of the four-hour opera. In scenes with Latonia Moore, Palombi was quite simply out-sung, and there seemed a lack of passion on both parts.
Despite the fact that this Aida really is a solid production with a strong cast and huge numbers of supernumeraries (there are over 50 extras), the musicality and art required to communicate love, pain, passion, and desire was strangely absent Friday night. This Aida looks good on paper, and perhaps in subsequent performances the cast will smooth out these kinks. But, like any good-on-paper-date, no matter how handsome or accomplished the dinner companion, an evening can quickly become tedious when there's no chemistry.
The Dallas Opera performs Aida on Wednesday, October 31, and on November 3, 9, and 11.