The Daily Camera
"The most revelatory performance came from mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin as the Egyptian princess Amneris, who is also desperately in unrequited love with Radames. Martin is both radiant and commanding, and her passion, both vocally and dramatically, sustains the tension-filled first half of Act IV.
In fact, Martin succeeds in making Amneris the most interesting character in the opera. Verdi made sure that this was possible in the way he wrote the role, but the singer needs to cash in on that if she is not to retreat into the shadows of Aida and Radames."
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Before the curtain rose at the sold-out Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Saturday night, the 2016-17 Opera Colorado season was announced, along with confirmation that the company's restructuring after a 2013 financial shortfall was a resounding success.
The performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" then drove home that point with another entry in a string of phenomenal productions over the past couple of years.
But beyond that, there was an intangible sense that this particular production epitomizes the best we can expect from opera in our area. One of the most positive recent developments for Opera Colorado was this year's naming of Ari Pelto as its first music director.
The conductor — who made such an indelible mark with his acclaimed interpretation of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in 2013, then followed up with an incredibly nuanced reading of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" last year — is an obvious and natural fit for the company's aesthetic.
In the pit for "Aida," Pelto showed a firm command of the orchestra, a distinct communication with the singers and a solid knowledge of Verdi's four-act 1871 score.
The set, borrowed from Virginia, is a wonderful fit for the Ellie's uniquely intimate-seeming stage. An abstract triangle theme provided an obvious reference point for the story's setting in ancient Egypt and gave director David Gately an ideal frame for the characters.
Despite its reputation for grand spectacle and a large ensemble, "Aida" is almost obsessively focused on its three main characters, and all were played with unbridled emotion.
In her first-ever public performance of the title role, soprano Alexandra LoBianco was fearless. The Ethiopian slave/princess is torn from the outset between love for the Egyptian hero Radames and love for her country, and LoBianco elicited extreme sympathy for both. Her lamenting Act III aria "O Patria Mia" was a culmination toward which she had much earlier laid the foundation.
LoBianoco also had more than enough technique to match that of tenor Carl Tanner, who owns the role of Radames. The famous Act I aria "Celeste Aida," which is over before the action even really starts, is a notorious challenge for any tenor to pull off so early, but Tanner negotiated it so effortlessly that it served more as an introduction to the drama than as a demonstrative showpiece — and that is a good thing, the glorious extended high notes notwithstanding.
Tanner's mastery carried through the remainder of the score up through the tragic end of Radames — in Aida's arms — as he succumbs to being sealed in a tomb as punishment for his treachery.
But the most revelatory performance came from mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin as the Egyptian princess Amneris, who is also desperately in unrequited love with Radames. Martin is both radiant and commanding, and her passion, both vocally and dramatically, sustains the tension-filled first half of Act IV.
In fact, Martin succeeds in making Amneris the most interesting character in the opera. Verdi made sure that this was possible in the way he wrote the role, but the singer needs to cash in on that if she is not to retreat into the shadows of Aida and Radames.
Of the supporting roles, bass Harold Wilson was most notable for his uncompromising portrayal of the high priest Ramfis, although University of Colorado alumnus and Boulder favorite Ashraf Sewailam was a striking King of Egypt. Baritone Marco Nistico, as the captured Ethiopian king (and Aida's father) Amonasro, makes the most of his extended scene with LoBianco in Act III.
The spectacle, of course, comes with the triumphal scene in Act II. The Opera Colorado chorus was in its usual excellent form, and it was balanced by a group of ballet dancers, with beautiful movements choreographed by Rachel Harding. In the opera's most familiar musical sequence, the triumphal march, the offstage trumpets, placed near the audience in the mezzanine, were extremely effective.
The Denver Post
"Catherine Martin, singing Amneris, the pharaohs's daughter and Aida's rival, balanced the love triangle with well-acted passion and warm, human tones."
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The good word: After two years of financial struggles, the company has worked itself back to solvency, and will return to a three-opera season starting next year. And the just-announced lineup is on the ambitious side, with Donizetti's popular "Lucia di Lammermoor" anchoring a pair of unique attractions: Puccini's not-often heard "La Fanciulla del West," to be set in Colorado, and Laura Kaminsky's 2014 "As One," a 75-minute chamber piece about a character named Hannah who starts her story as a man and finishes as a woman.
Talk about transformations. The company is getting with the times, staking a claim in a contemporary opera world that values new works and innovative approaches. "As One" will be staged at the L2 Church on East Colfax Avenue, a community setting considerably less formal than the grand Ellie Caulkins Opera House where the company usually works.
Of course, there's still room for the warhorses in this scenario and that's where titles like "Aida" come in. The current production is traditional by most measures, with big voices leading the way.
Alexandra LoBianco, in the leading role, went for every note with verve, her voice ringing out clearly over the efforts of a talented co-cast and an orchestra that gave her competition in terms of volume and energy.
She has an impressive and endlessly confident singing style, a likable and natural ease with difficult notes and phrasing — a requirement for both Verdi and this particular production, helmed by David Gately, that played the enslaved Ethiopian princess more as a cowering victim of bad circumstances than the proud daughter of royalty who, despite her situation, captures the love of enemy army commander Radames.
The singing was roundly aggressive and pin-point sharp in that way that plays up Verdi's high-emotions. As Radmes, Carl Tanner met his doomed mate at full-throttle from the very first note. Catherine Martin, singing Amneris, the pharaohs's daughter and Aida's rival, balanced the love triangle with well-acted passion and warm, human tones.
Triangles were a theme in the sets, too, borrowed from the Virginia Opera. Three-sided panels, made of a corrugated material slid back and forth, up and down, framing an abstract landscape, appropriate for the land of pyramids. This isn't the biggest "Aida" on the block, but it's handsome and clever, and that's more meaningful than big.
Now in its 33rd year, Opera Colorado has this sort of show down. It knows how to deliver solid work on a limited, mid-country opera company budget. It's in a good position to move into a new era, where experimentation and artistic risk-taking are part of the equation.
With this crowd-pleasing production as a standard, and new adventures on the way, Denver's opera community has a few solid reasons to be optimistic about what's to come.
Three performances remain of Opera Colorado's "Aida." 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Nov. 13; and 2 p.m. Nov. 11. Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Center. $20-$200. For tickets: 303-468-2030 or operacolorado.org.
Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, email@example.com or @rayrinaldi