AÔda at Aspen

The title role was taken by the young American soprano Tamara Wilson, who
received accolades as a replacement AÔda at the MET last December. Wilson’s
cool and silvery soprano reminds one of great interwar AÔda’s—Elizabeth
Rethberg comes to mind—rather than Leontyne Price, Maria Callas, Renata
Tebaldi or other postwar singers who have led us to expect broad warm, darkly
golden-toned voices in this role. (Wilson even looks a bit like something out
of an early 20th century photograph—which I mean as a compliment.) Wilson’s
voice is so perfectly focused that at pianissimo it can easily fill even an
acoustically problematic space such as Aspen’s large tent, yet it can also
swell to a thrilling forte, and beyond to fortissimo—all without spoiling the
timbre or line. The technical difficulties of the role—including the dolce
high c in “O Patria Mia,” which only a few singers per generation can
really sing as written—pose for her no problem. Her clear diction, subtle
inflection and musical intelligence, combined with an ability to act with her
face, added up to coherent musical-dramatic characterization of the title
character: more girlish and vulnerable than one generally sees. As she ages,
the voice may fill out further, particularly at the bottom. If so, Wilson may
become an AÔda for the ages.

As Ramfis, Morris Robinson commanded the stage even when sharing it with one
hundred others. His thundering cries of “Guerra!” rang above the first
scene concertante finale, his sonorous bass floated just audible above the
opening chorus of the second scene, his subsequent high f at “Folgore
morte” was firm, and so on through the night. He acted equally well: his
looming presence added an ominous element to the Egyptian priesthood and his
quick glances signaled that he was on to RadamËs and AÔda long before anyone
else. Diction is the only area in which Robinson could improve, but this former
all-American football player who began singing opera seriously only at 30, is
already more than repaying the early faith of the Met and other companies.

At least at this stage in his career, Brian Mulligan wisely rejects the
gruff bluster with which most baritones approach Amonasro in favor of
scrupulous and sensitive attention to the score. His approach was evident from
his opening declaration (“suo padre!”). Most baritones announce their
belated presence with a ringing forte at this point, which makes some dramatic
sense for a king in disguise. Yet Mulligan sang it as Verdi plainly wrote it in
the score: forte at first, but with a lovely, almost reflective, decrescendo.
Elsewhere Mulligan’s scrupulousness and sensitivity paid dividends as well,
particularly in the Act III duet with AÔda. Here again we may have the makings
of a heavyweight Verdi greatness.

The fourth young singer, tenor Issachah Savage, clearly possesses that rare
operatic gift: a near-ideal natural instrument to sing RadamËs. He possesses
bronze-hued grandeur for the heroic passages and a sweetly mixed timbre for the
more intimate ones. Though he has been singing this role for several years,
however, nervousness seemed to undermine his big moments. He cut off many
extended and exposed phrases, sagged flat and dropped a line in “Celeste
AÔda,” and failed to produce a clear tone on both the final A of Act 3 and
the penultimate pianissimo B-flat of Act 4. Still, this young Philadelphian is
a singer to watch; he may yet achieve historical greatness in spinto
and dramatic roles.

The fifth lead singer, Mezzo Michelle DeYoung, was by far the most
experienced and best-known singer on stage. She is a consummate professional.
The voice is even and smooth from top to bottom and the diction clear. She
looks the part and she has clearly thought out the musical-dramatic effects she
seeks at every point: her portrayal of Amneris is more sympathetic than the
scenery-chewing norm. Yet in the end one wonders if this is really the right
role for someone without the requisite chesty mezzo power and steely edge of a
classic Verdi mezzo, particularly at the extremes of the voice. She simply
failed to command the stage at Amneris’s grandest moments: the Act II duet
and, above all, the end of the Judgment Scene, where the ultimate high A is
made to ring out more powerfully and longer than the strict four beats in
Verdi’s score.

As for the smaller roles, Pureum Jo delivered the Sacerdotessa’s exotic
lines smoothly but (whether due to placement or intent) too loudly: the temple
priestess’s voice is supposed to emerge mysteriously and exotically from
somewhere in the darkness of a vast temple, which is why Verdi marked it to be
subtle and soft, even though off-stage. Bass Matthew TreviÒo and tenor Landon
Shaw II used strident declamation, good diction and excellent acting—not to
mention the appearance of handsome young mafiosi—to make the most of
their cameos as the King and the Messenger.

Given that they (I am told) less than a week and few rehearsals, the Aspen
Festival Orchestra under Robert Spano performed with remarkable fluidity,
accuracy and idiomatic style. To be sure, the orchestra contains ringers, such
as Elaine Douvas (Principal Oboe of the Metropolitan Opera) and David Halen
(Concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony), who can handle this material in
their sleep. But it also includes top students and young professionals, who
acquitted themselves impressively. (No lack of a younger generation among
orchestral musicians, evidently!) Only the triumphal trumpets in the higher key
struggled. The chorus sang lustily, but also with subtlety when it mattered
most. Spano directed well, only occasionally proceeding with excessive caution.
By necessity, a semi-staged production will emphasize the intimate aspects of
this opera, which took place within a hollow cloth pyramid, open on the side
facing the audience. It made for an adequate, though not impressive, set. Comic
relief was provided in the Triumphal Scene by permitting a half dozen very
large white balloons bounce around the audience, as the principals—still
inhabiting the world of 5000 years ago—watched bemused from the stage.

Andrew Moravcsik

image_description=Tamara Wilson [Photo by Aaron Gang courtesy of Columbia Artists Management Inc.]
product_title=AÔda at Aspen
product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik
product_id=Above: Tamara Wilson [Photo by Aaron Gang courtesy of Columbia Artists Management Inc.]