Opening Night – PALM BEACH OPERA (12-9-05)

By Lawrence Budmen

Palm Beach Opera opened a new era on December 9 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach with that grandest of grand operas – Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. Not withstanding a few flawed performances, it was a night of opulent theatrical pageantry and vociferous singing. Most importantly the production introduced Bruno Aprea, the company’s new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor. 

Aprea was a protégé of the legendary Italian conductor and teacher Franco Ferrara. He was winner of the 1977 Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood where he studied with Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, and Andre Previn. A longtime Professor at Rome’s Santa Cecilia Academy, Aprea is a conductor in the great Italian tradition of Toscanini, Muti, and Abbado. He obtained superbly disciplined playing from the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra. This ensemble has never before displayed such silky strings, supple winds, and blazing brass. (The brass contingent in the Triumphal Scene had terrific musical velocity and excitement and really raised the roof.) Aprea brought poignant lyricism and kinetic excitement to Verdi’s soaring arias and ensembles. 

In the title role Indra Thomas revealed a sizable lyrico-spinto soprano voice. Her glistening pianissimos in O Patria Mia were magical. Yet she could unleash a ringing high C in the Triumphal Scene that easily cut through the full orchestral, choral, and vocal ensemble forces to powerful effect. Thomas dominated every one of Aida’s scenes. She is the authentic article – a major Verdi soprano with a voice of soaring, expressive beauty.

While Irina Mishura embodied Amneris’s regal bearing and jealousy, her voice was often shrill and unattractive. This mezzo’s timbre is basically too light for the role of the Egyptian princess. Amneris cries out for the full bodied sound of a Fiorenza Cossotto, Grace Bumbry, or Dolora Zajick, the role’s current champion. 

As the Egyptian warrior Radames Italian tenor Piero Giuliacci had a ringing voice with true Italianate squillo. His pitch was sometimes erratic and his high notes were hit or miss. Unfortunately he is a wooden actor with little stage presence. In the Tomb Scene he sang with honeyed sweetness and fervor. Some dulcet soft tones were beautifully floated. 

Gordon Hawkins offered a powerful, manly baritone as the Ethiopian King Amonasro. Hawkins’s dark, rich voice dominated the stage with laser like intensity.

Peter Volpe revealed a sonorous bass as the High Priest Ramfis. Too often his strong tonal compass was afflicted with an unsteady vibrato. Samuel L. Smith sang the Egyptian King’s strophes with a smooth basso cantante of protean authority. The sweet, clear soprano of Marianne Cope turned the brief offstage solo of the Priestess into a vocally shimmering cameo.

Designers Claude Girard and Bernard Uzan offered extravagant pageantry. The sets had an Egyptian monumentality that perfected reflected both historical perspective and the music’s shifting lyrical and dramatic modes. Uzan used the limited space of the Kravis Center stage with remarkable effectiveness in a surprisingly grandiose Triumphal Scene. Choreographer Peggy Hickey supplied colorful dances that filled the stage with entertaining spectacle. 

Conductor Aprea and his well matched cast served up sumptuous Verdi that often soared with real Italianate fervor. Here was a true gala opening that promises a wonderful new era of grand opera for the Palm Beaches!

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