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At War in Berkeley

July 24, 2007

Jonathan Khuner, Berkeley Opera's artistic director, has long wanted to strip Verdi's Aïda of ancient Egyptian spectacle. Stage director Yuval Sharon was interested in making the composer’s story relevant to our times. In the opening performance of Aïda Saturday at the Julia Morgan Theatre, their successful collaboration was, in large part, fundamentally true to Verdi. The chorus sang entirely offstage, functioning more as a Greek chorus than as an exotic display of priests, slaves, soldiers, and animals. The scenes onstage were therefore intensely intimate, focusing only on characters revealed in solos and small ensembles.
One welcome effect of the chorus' positioning was that when a solo voice on stage was singing with the chorus, it was clearly distinguishable as an individual voice. Coordination between Khuner's orchestra and the offstage voices was remarkably good, with only a few slight lapses in intonation or timing.

The costumes were modern suits and dresses; the language was Italian (with supertitles). The exact location of the setting — "the official residence and executive workplace of the nation's political and religious leaders" — was deliberately not identified. But the cover of the program gave a large hint: What looked like an Egyptian pyramid turned out, on close inspection, to be the back of the American dollar bill (nice touch). Another hint came when the army returned victorious from war and a banner was unfurled reading "Mission Accomplished" in Italian.

The story is essentially that of three people: Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt; Aïda, daughter of the Ethiopian King Amonasro and, following his military defeat, slave to Amneris; and Radames, an ambitious soldier in the Egyptian army, elevated to commander for an impending re-engagement with the Ethiopians. (In this production, they were neither Egyptians nor Ethiopians.) Radames loves Aïda, both women love Radames, and nobody knows of Aïda's royal status. Their emotional dilemmas — and eventual destruction — are thrown into relief against a background of war, slavery, jingoism, and religious fanaticism as effectively in this production as in one featuring massed soldiers and priests. I agree with director Sharon that this is a fair reading of Verdi's intention.
Strong Vocal and Dramatic Performances
Of the three principal characters, Jennifer Roderer's Amneris was a standout. Her potent mezzo-soprano voice, used in the service of strong dramatic instincts, gave full expression to feelings of love, jealousy, and grief, both in solo work and in powerful exchanges with Aïda and Radames. She ran the entire gamut of emotions — suspicious of her slave, then triumphant over her, enraged on discovering that Radames had chosen Aïda and had been tricked into disclosing military information to the Ethiopians, furious in her denunciation of Radames, then remorseful, at last devastated when she was unable to save him.

Tenor Kevin Courtemanche has the voice to sing Radames, one possessed of a clarion quality that can convey both tender feelings and heroic sentiments. The direction did not help him look the part at the beginning, as he wandered about the stage and expressed his eagerness for action by ridiculous shadow boxing. Another false note was struck early on when he and Amneris sat down to a meal, looking pathetically like an old married couple (he behind his newspaper, she in a sort of bathrobe) when there was no reason for them to share a meal at all. After a slight bobble at the end of "Celeste Aïda," Courtemanche gathered strength, both vocally and dramatically, as a wounded veteran returning victorious from the war, and finally as a man unable to resolve the conflict between love and country.

Juyeon Song, as Aïda, was a worthy match dramatically for Amneris. Their exchanges were electric. Song's "Ritorna vincitor" passionately expressed her conflicting feelings of love for the Egyptian and loyalty to her father and her country. But she should heed Sharon's program-note description of the Julia Morgan acoustics, as contrasted with those of large opera houses where "vocal production has to be extreme." Song's voice has plenty of power, and she used all of it too often, sometimes pushing it into an excess of vibrato. She also demonstrated (fleetingly, I admit) that lying flat on your back can be conducive to singing, well, flat.

There wasn't a weak link in the cast. Performances strong both vocally and dramatically were given by William Pickersgill as Ramfis, Paul Cheak as the King, Jo Vincent Parks as Amonasro, and Margaret Valeriano as a priestess. Tenor Kenny Louis sang well as the messenger who brought the news that the enemy were invading (and got kicked around as thanks for his bringing bad tidings).

An effective use of live and prerecorded video, reporting victory in battle on a TV screen, featured Charlotte Khuner as a parade dancer. Puckie the Boy, a dog with an impressive resume, kindly made it possible for Jennifer Roderer to demonstrate that she can compete with a dog act.
Germane, or Just Puzzling?
A few problems with the production were the result of Sharon's over-reaching himself in making Verdi's work germane to contemporary issues. For the entire first act, members of the audience were whispering to each other, “Who’s the guy in the attic?” It wasn't until nearly the end of the act that people who knew the opera could figure out that the Nurse Ratched type who finally gave him a lethal injection was a priestess. For those who wondered about the guy in the attic: A bio in the program was for one Nick Russell, who played the part of the "Dying Soldier." (I still don't get it.)

Sharon also carried the anticlerical theme too far when he had the high priest Ramfis and the priestess humping in the attic. Making the priest a hypocrite and the priestess a slut dilutes Verdi's objection to their religion as such. And, about the third time they tried a new position (a Peter Sellers touch), the audience was getting the giggles. Another episode that undercut the musical performance featured a spy in the attic whose headphones were picking up evidence of Radames' unwitting disclosure of military strategy. The spy kept rattling a newspaper, upstaging a powerful scene between Radames and Aïda.

Sharon's violent addition to the end of Verdi's work was a mistake. Amonasro's goons rushed in, evidently having benefited from Radames' betrayal, and killed everybody in sight, except for Amneris. Amonasro entered and sat opposite her, where Radames had once been positioned. The threat was clear. Yet the scene undercut the musical and dramatic ending that Verdi intended. Aïda had come back to join Radames in his sealed tomb, and the dark attic became the tomb, leaving the main stage brightly lit. She had chosen to die in Radames' arms. We saw them start to die, but if finally she did end in his arms, most of us missed it — and the music — because we were riveted by the bloody mayhem on stage.

A minor false note: At the beginning of the opera, a black-and-white squad of maids entered, one by one, on their hands and knees, mopping the floor. They proceeded in a line, all around the stage, each one mopping the place that her predecessor had just mopped. That's no way to mop a floor.

Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, UC Berkeley faculty emerita, San Francisco State University lecturer emerita, and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.