Armenians participate in Philadelphia opera

Soprano was a first-rate substitute in opening-night ‘Aïda’
By David Patrick Stearns

Posted on Tue, Feb. 15, 2005

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Inquirer Music Critic

Oh, the drama!

Opera Company of Philadelphia’s hottest production of the year,
a heavily sold Aïda starring the soprano Angela Brown, arrived at
its Friday opening with Brown and the leading tenor, Renzo Zulian,
too sick to sing. The fourth wall separating performers and audience
shatters when the opera’s mechanism is as much a source of suspense
as the opera itself. You get two dramas for the price of one.

Both Brown and Zulian are expected to sing tomorrow, when they’ll be
reviewed for Friday’s Inquirer – but that doesn’t mean audiences from
here on are necessarily getting a better show. Brown’s replacement
last Friday (she returned for Sunday’s performance) was Lisa Daltirus,
who lives in the Yardley area, has had some important successes with
Opera Delaware and was, for me, a more complete Aïda than Brown
delivered last year at the Metropolitan Opera. Those who live for the
beauty of the human voice will prefer Brown. But for those who value
opera as drama and have gone too long without caring about Aïda,
Daltirus was all but miraculous. Only some vocal tiredness manifested
in a few threadbare notes kept Daltirus from a full-tilt triumph.

The classic love-versus-duty opera plot – with the love triangle
between the captured Ethiopian Äida, the Egyptian general Radames
and princess Amneris – momentarily seemed as vital as headlines from
Iraq, thanks to the handsome production borrowed from the Montreal
Opera and Daltirus’ burgeoning stage savvy.

Though her dusky Leontyne Price-timbre voice was the same she displayed
in her 2002 Tosca in Wilmington, Daltirus has grown beyond recognition
in other respects. Voice, physical gesture and dramatic meaning are
now all of a piece. This is quite rare.

Besides making emotional connections on a phrase-by-phrase basis,
Daltirus projected “back story”: Her body language told you that though
Aïda is a princess, she’s also from an aggressive, primitive culture
and a perpetual outsider in the stratified formality of Egypt. In
her Act I “Ritorna Vincitor!,” sung against a plain black backdrop,
Daltirus was like a mere speck in a world that towers over her. The
image projected profound fragility.

Tenor Dongwon Shin from Korea, known to Academy of Vocal Arts
audiences, made his professional debut (and also sang Sunday) with
minimum rehearsal. His fatigue was more audible than Daltirus’, but
his high notes are distinctive: His voice doesn’t thin out at the
top, but gains coloristic substance. Beyond that, his Radames can’t
be fairly judged on this performance, though given his short stature,
his biggest challenge in the future will be creating the illusion of
heroism. On Friday, with mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever towering over him,
he looked like Amneris’ breakfast.

Baritone Gregg Baker sings new roles here so often, one forgets
how good he can be when in more familiar territory such as Amonasro
(Aïda’s father). The voice is as imposing as ever, and he created
jaw-dropping electricity with Daltirus. Tigran Martirossian, a
seasoned Boris Godunov from the Bolshoi Opera, was luxurious casting as
Ramfis. Dever lacked the cutting power necessary for her character’s
bitchier moments and seems to have enemies in the costume department
in light of her unflattering Egypt-cum-Las Vegas gowns.

Chorus and orchestra were in fine shape, music director Corrado
Rovaris having the smarts and the nerve to start big choral scenes
in relative quiet, giving them somewhere to build. Robert Driver’s
stage direction was perfectly sensible. The triumphal processional –
with the Egyptian army looking like a case of too many cheesesteaks –
was a bit silly, but isn’t it always?