Most of the time audiences go to the opera hoping to see a spectacle — or to experience deep immersion in an extravagant story, extravagantly portrayed by beautiful singers-actors clad in beautiful clothes. The director of San Francisco Opera’s newest production of Aida, Francesca Zambello, however, admires the piece not for its epitomization of grandeur, but for the way it depicts the struggle between the individual and larger societal structures; for her, Aida is primarily a chamber opera, and its intimate moments deserve the most emphasis. In Friday evening’s performance at the War Memorial Opera House, Zambello’s views came to the forefront, even when Verdi’s treatment of larger structures felt eerily empty or unsettling.
Soprano Leah Crocetto was undoubtedly the star of the evening in the title-role. Already in her first aria, Ritorna vincitor!, where she explores the opera’s struggle between the private and public (her love for Radames against her duty for her homeland), her voice was striking in power, and her musical interpretation wide in affect, from quietly pitiful to indignant. And while her acting and facial expressions did not always enjoy her singing’s diversity, Brian Jagde’s progressively poignant depiction of Radames acted as foil: together, the couple in love had all the range of ingredients needed for their flourishing tragedy-love, and for the almost Wagnerian finale, where their mingling voices and bodies prepared them for literal and metaphorical entombment. Ekaterina Semenchuk channeled both an inner darkness and innocence in her role as Amneris, although her singing did not always pierce through the more thickly orchestrated moments like Crocetto’s did. Yet without her part in the love triangle, the performance’s occasional piquancy would have been diminished. Her anguishing L’aborrita rival a me sfuggia from Act IV emphasized Verdi’s gloomy portrayal of the immovable structures of society and politics, which priest Ramfis, sung ominously by Raymond Aceto, embodies. This and her several Mozartian rage-aria moments gave her, especially when she switched to a blue gown at the end (after the initial yellow and white), a tinge of Queen of the Night sparkle (minus the high Fs).
Other parts of the performance, especially En el Templo de Ptah at the end of Act I, where the offstage diagetic music drifted away from the onstage music slightly off-tune, and the magical moonlit Nile Scene in Act III, also recalled Mozart’s Magic Flute; but whereas in the earlier piece the individuals characters’ agency triumphs over ceremonial and religious solemnities, here they are left shackled. In this performance, this did not happen necessarily, because of Zambello’s choice to deemphasize extravagance in costumes and sets, but was simply an inevitable result of the piece’s function — it is supposed to happen. Nevertheless, in one of the earlier scenes in Act I, where Amneris tricks Aida into revealing her feelings for Radames, the sets and costumes added to the starkness: a blue, 50s-inspired couch was the centerpiece of the courtiers’ gathering at Egyptian court, and the colorful dresses, despite the variety, evoked more a conservative version of a modern-day spa resort than a royal palace. The problem was not the absence of traditional, over-the-top “Egyptian” gear, but the overall ambiguous effect the blend of these elements created. On the bright side, artist RETNA (Marquis Muriel Lewis), whose work is inspired by calligraphy and hieroglyphics, brought novelty into the sets with both colorful and severe graphic centerpieces, whose geometric boldness blended the contemporary with the ancient.
Most surprisingly, Rachel Speidel Little’s expressive dancing, especially after the Triumphal Scene (an automatic success, of course), contributed several essential moments of humanity to the plot’s progression, which, despite Zambello’s careful attention to the intimate scenes, and conductor Nicola Luisotti’s balanced tempos and textures, felt still impersonal. Jessica Lang’s choreography here seemed to locally achieve what the opera as a whole could not: at first, the surrounding male dancers violently passed Little around as she struggled and failed, but as the dance (and the almost Mahlerian music) progressed, so did the dancer’s agency, and her control over fate. The main characters wouldn’t be so lucky, but their anguish would provide the musical highlight: Crocetto’s laments over her fate effortlessly glided to a high C in O patria mia in Act III, and her inner struggle weaved itself sweetly from breathless torment into the fibers of every phrase. Her singing with Jagde in the rest of the Act gave us a glimpse of the tragic finale and its duet, which ends not with trumpets and drums, but with an eerie, deathly sweetness. To expand the love duet, O terra adio, to a pathetic love triangle, Amneris appeared at a lighted window on the top right of the stage as the lovers slowly collapsed to the ground below, on the left. This striking image added a glimpse of hope to the darkness of the conclusion as Amneris’s prayers mingled with Verdi’s touching Liebestod.