Review: An ‘Aida’ Cast to Remember |

Review: An ‘Aida’ Cast to Remember

Harvey Steiman
Special to the Aspen Times

The Aspen Music Festival always has presented great singers. Soprano Renee Fleming is a prominent alumna of the school here and remains a big supporter. But the quantity and quality have been on the increase in recent years.

Festival President Alan Fletcher, a serious opera lover, no doubt has had a hand in getting impressive singers to perform here. Earlier this summer, tenor Vittorio Grigolo gave a dynamic solo recital, and the luxuriant mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard soothed ears with Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’Ete” on Sunday afternoon’s orchestra program.

But the big news was Friday night’s semi-staged performance of Verdi’s “Aida” in the Benedict Music Tent, with a cast that few opera houses in the world can match today. Set in ancient Egypt, the opera follows the love triangle among Amneris (the Pharaoh’s daughter), Radames (leader of the country’s troops) and the title character, an Ethiopian slave.

Several of the five principal roles have longtime Aspen ties. Soprano Tamara Wilson, an Aida of magnificent vocal beauty and vulnerable acting, and baritone Brian Mulligan, who as Amonasro (Aida’s father) showed that he has developed into a serious Verdi baritone, both came through the opera program here and now sing on major stages. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who deployed astounding technique, vocal power and richness as an Amneris with deep, communicative character, has been singing here regularly in recent years, and Morris Robinson, no stranger to Aspen, made the tent reverberate with his resplendent bass and created a formidable presence as Ramfis, the high priest.

Tenor Issachah Savage, who sang the role with the Boston Symphony last year, spun Radames’ music with more lyrical elegance than sheer power. He showed range to spare in “Celeste Aida,” an aria that sends pangs of fear into most tenors because it’s in the opening scene. If he floundered a bit at the very end of the opera, the rest was delicious to the ear.

Wilson’s voice carried the top line over dense ensembles with ease and delivered riveting accounts of her two big arias. She soared with “Ritorna Vincitor,” making clear her emotional conflict upon learning that her lover Radames was to lead the Egyptian army against her own country and her father. Even better, “O Patria Mia” culminated in floating clouds of sound in her highest range. In the final duet, she and Radames melted the heart with pure singing as they prepared to die together.

DeYoung avoided the manic histrionics many singers playing Amneris affect and created a character that was genuinely regal yet wily enough to trick Aida into revealing that Radames had betrayed his country. Her solo scene outside the tribunal where Radames is condemned for treason was a model of inner conflict underneath outer composure. She let her voice’s current of electric sound define the character.

Members of this year’s opera theater roster also distinguished themselves in smaller roles, especially soprano Pureum Jo as the High Priestess. The squally high notes that marred her Juliette in Gounod’s opera earlier this summer were gone, and the beauty of her creamy, accurate singing carried easily throughout the 2,100-seat tent. Bass Matthew Trevino made a noble young king, and tenor Landon Shaw dispatched the messenger’s lines with precision.

Conductor Robert Spano drew sounds from the orchestra that could swell from gossamer wafts in intimate moments to broad proportions in the spectacular “public” scenes. If the orchestra’s contribution missed the ebb and flow that veteran opera orchestras and conductors achieve, the big triumphal scene delivered appropriate vigor and generosity. The only hitch was placing what the score calls a “stage band” behind the audience, which set up a recurring out-of-sync tennis match with the orchestra at the front of the tent.

With the orchestra grouped on one side of the stage, most of the dramatic action took place in front of a translucent pyramid-shaped backdrop, a series of wavelike sculptures hanging on the back wall and a raised walkway in front of the orchestra. It put the singers in position to act their scenes well enough, but five unwieldy weather balloons toted by extras standing in for the triumphal parade drew titters from the audience.

On balance, though, this was a huge achievement, doing what great opera should. It touched off emotions while rolling out splendid music.

Shifted to Saturday night, the Friday Chamber Orchestra under conductor Federico Cortese provided solid support for two very different soloists. But the most exciting music came at the end. Ginastera’s “Estancia Suite” — four dances from his Argentine ballet — ended with a robust Malambo finale, executed with rip-snorting rhythmic intensity by all hands. Virtuoso Edgar Meyer played brilliantly in his Double Bass Concerto in E, a piece he wrote in 2012. It picks up steam after a mysterious opening, finally breaking free in the final section, the best part of the piece. Violinist Veronica Eberle applied her formidable technical command to bringing out the mood shifts in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. She and the orchestra gave us plenty to chew on as it careened from a doleful first movement into an intricate scherzo, then a somber passacaglia and finally a rollicking finale.

That left Sunday’s concert to the all-student Aspen Philharmonic, which usually plays Wednesdays. Conductor Josep Caballe-Domenech did an admirable job backing violinist Sarah Chang in the Sibelius concerto and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard in Berlioz’s song cycle “Les Nuits d’Ete.” Toning down the histrionics she has displayed in previous appearances, Chang displayed some heartfelt music-making. For Leonard, however, the Berlioz songs might still be a work in progress. She applied lovely tone and clear diction to the music, and the softer, more poignant, sustained high notes were a revelation, but long stretches went by without much inflection.

On their own, however, conductor and orchestra finished the concert with Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” in full Technicolor and Panavision. The 20 minutes of gripping scene-painting concluded with extra brass scattered around the tent to create vivid surround sound. In this case, it synced perfectly with the orchestra on stage.


Anyone who loves the sounds and rhythms of tango will make tracks to Harris Hall tonight for Astor Piazzola’s “Maria de Buenos Aires,” an opera in tango. Pianist Vladimir Feltsman should be in his wheelhouse for two concerts of 20th-century Russian music, alone and in chamber groups, Wednesday and Thursday. And on Friday’s Chamber Symphony program in the tent, violinist Joshua Bell plays and conducts Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.