Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 1, 2012

A love pyramid

The Egyptian tragedy 'Aida' sounds sublime at West Bay Opera

by Rebecca Wallace

Some voices have the power but lack the grace. Karen Slack's soprano is a supple instrument suited to all the extremes of Verdi's "Aida."

As the Ethiopian princess-turned-slave trapped in a love triangle, Slack erupts with passion, or dreamily laments the loss of Aida's homeland. A voice that strong surprises with its sudden gentleness.

Slack is the star around which West Bay Opera's current production of "Aida" orbits, and she is by necessity a bright one. It's the first time this intimate company has taken on the large-scale classic. To match the grandeur in the music, West Bay has also brought in gleaming costumes, fanciful headdresses, ballet and contemporary dancers, and "the largest chorus in recent memory," according to West Bay general director Jose Luis Moscovich.

This production doesn't have Moscovich wielding the baton, though. He recently underwent back surgery, and it was all he could do to give the curtain speech on opening night, leaning on a cane.

The music didn't suffer. Conducted by Michel Singher — whose West Bay credits include "Don Giovanni" — the production sounded splendid. The orchestra skillfully conjured up the required richness, with harpist Randall Pratt a lyrical highlight. And Slack was matched by many other strong voices.

The story begins on the eve of war between Egypt and Ethiopia, with its human focus on the love triangle. Aida is a servant to the Pharaoh's daughter, Amneris (Cybele Gouverneur), who adores Egyptian military hero Radames (David Gustafson). But Radames and Aida share a secret passion.

There are myriad declarations of war and love, and ethereal harmonies sung in a temple, where the female chorus and the offstage voice of the High Priestess (Allanda Small) are exquisite. Dancers reenact battles and try to distract the lovesick Amneris. There is much wartime plotting.

Throughout, the music and voices remain highlights, as they should. Tenor Gustafson — who brought such velvet to "Nessun dorma" in West Bay's recent "Turandot" — was a welcome return. Bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala was composed and imposing as Ramfis, the High Priest.

Douglas Botnick was less imposing as Amonasro, Aida's kingly father, with his wild curls and peculiar ragtag costumes. Still, his voice's conviction could not be faulted. Gouverneur was properly imperious, but her lower register sounded hesitant in the trio "Vieni, o diletta, appressati (Come, oh delight, come closer)" with Slack and Gustafson, making her hard to hear.

Visually, "Aida" also felt uncertain at times. The chorus' movements were often uneven (and even the principal singers had their stiff moments), and many scene changes were slow and noisy. Jittery lighting distracted.

Ideally, these things will have smoothed out by the second weekend, allowing audiences to focus on the universal themes at the heart of "Aida": love and loss, romantic love versus family loyalty, and life and death. Getting to the heart of the matter is what this production does best.

Info: Remaining performances of "Aida" are June 2 at 8 p.m. and June 3 at 2 p.m., in the Lucie Stern Theatre at 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$70. Go to wbopera.org or call 650-424-9999.

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