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Madison Opera: Verdi's "Aida"

Verdi: Aida

Aida: Viviane Thomas, soprano
Amneris: Cynthia Munzer, mezzo-soprano
Amonasro: Adib Fazah, baritone
Radames: Augusto Paglialunga, tenor
Ramphis: Myron Myers, bass
The King of Egypt: Bruce Baumer, bass
Madison Symphony Orchestra
Roland Johnson, conductor


When it comes to grand opera, few operas are grander than Verdi's Aida, and the Madison Opera's performance at the Oscar Mayer Theater Sunday afternoon was quite wonderfully grand as to singing and staging. In addition, as the capstone of Roland Johnson's long career as the founder and conductor of the Madison Opera, the performance left very little to be desired.

David Pfeiffer's stage direction and choreography nicely overcame the problem of static action during long stretches of musical development. However, I was frustrated that the final scene, which is the emotional climax of the whole work, was played behind a scrim. Even though it's acoustically transparent, the scrim impeded emotional and visual clarity. Francisco Reynders's scenic design worked well, especially in allowing relatively quick scene changes, though in such long work the symmetry of the set wore thin. To a significant extent, a very impressive lighting design, by William Owen, offset the lack of variety in the settings. These small objections to one side, the overall visual effect, bolstered by sumptuous costuming, was simply stunning.

Aida is paradise for good singers, and for over three hours the singing was not just good, it was superlative. Verdi's vocal lines are always beautiful, but in Aida they're somehow more beautiful yet. As the High Priest Ramphis, Myron Myers was serious and stern, his rich bass anchoring the opera's central tragedy of love, jealousy, betrayal, and death. As the King, Bruce Baumer was upright and commanding. Adib Fazah, in the role of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia and father of Aida, was in excellent voice and managed the difficult task of being human as he commanded his daughter to betray her own love in favor of country.

But it was the three principal roles that lifted the performance far above the ordinary level. Augusto Paglialunga's Radames favored the heroic aspect of the character at the expense of his sensitive side, but he brilliantly carried off one of the most difficult tenor roles in all of opera. In the title role, Viviane Thomas's large spinto voice warmed up quickly, then simply got more beautiful as the opera unrolled. She was emotionally credible throughout, though not always as supple in her acting as she might have been.

The central drama of the work is the love rivalry between Aida and Amneris, Pharaoh's daughter. There is always bound to be a bit of a rivalry between the singers as well, and in this case the laurels belonged to Cynthia Munzer, whose enormous rich voice and driving emotional intensity swamped all competition. She was absolutely magnificent and richly deserved the sustained shouts of ¬Brava!║ from all sides.

The orchestra was in fine form, and Johnson was as expected attentive to the needs of his singers. Unusually but fittingly, he took a long solo bow at the tumultuous conclusion of the opera. The audience went wild. I can't blame them a bit.

Isthmus, January, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

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