No elephants cross the stage in the Utah Festival Opera's production of "Aida." You don't miss them at all. Rather than the spectacle that it has become, this production celebrates the Verdi's original intent as a "chamber opera."
It wasn't until UFO director Michael Ballam saw the production on a 14-foot stage in Italy, that he realized you don't need the spectacle, you need the passion. He's to be commended for that foresight, which has resulted in an exceptional treat.
Ultimately, "Aida" is a story of human emotion jealousy, revenge, regret, and above all, love set to a glorious score.
The same can be said for Puccini's "Manon Lescaut," the other opera UFO is presenting this season, which is imbued with similar human sentiment as well as the willingness to die for undying love done to music that can stir the soul as well.
• "Aida," one of Verdi's best-known and best-loved operas, tells the story of an Ethiopian slave, Aida, serving the Pharaoh's daughter, Amneris. They both are in love with Radames, commander of the Egyptian army. But Radames loves only Aida. That love leads him to unwittingly betray his country, but rather than renounce his love and marry Amneris, he chooses to die as a traitor.
The cast that UFO has assembled for the production has international flavor and stellar quality. Marie-Adele McArthur, a native of New Zealand, excels as the slave Aida, not only with her strong, beautiful voice, but also with her ability to capture the conflict Aida feels between loving Radames and loving her father and her homeland.
Lisa van der Ploeg, from Denmark, is equally adept as Amneris, who starts off haughty and proud but ends up despairing decisions she has made. The scene where she comes to grips with her choices has a powerful impact.
Arthur Shen also brings depth of emotion, as well as a gorgeous tenor voice, to the role of Radames. His opening aria, where he proclaims his love of Aida to the gods, leaves no doubt of his feeling. And the scene at the end, where he finds that his love has crept into his tomb to share his fate, is gripping. It's not surprising that this is one of the most potent scenes in all of opera.
The voices of the three principals blend beautifully on duets, and since the score gives them one aria after another, there's a lot of gorgeous singing going on.
Michael Corvino is also strong in the role of Amonasro, Aida's father. Bojan Knezevic, as Ramfis; and David Ward, as the Egyptian king, do exceptional jobs, as well.
As good as the featured artists are, they are well matched by the ensemble; the early scene in the Temple of Vulcan is a favorite. The dancers add interest. Staging and lighting add a great deal to the overall impact. And the orchestra, under the baton of Karen Keltner (returning for her 12th consecutive UFO season) is eminently equal to the task of bringing to life Verdi's score. The famed processional march is indeed resounding. Who needs elephants?
• "Manon Lescaut" was Puccini's breakthrough masterwork and is still highly revered and often performed in Italy. If it is no "La Boheme," it provides an interesting look at how Puccini got to some of his later, and more beloved, works.
That's not to say there isn't a lot of good stuff going on here. "Manon" may not be as familiar, but it is very well done.
It tells the story of a rather vain and fickle young woman, who turns to love rather than a convent, then turns to riches rather than love. But, in the end and too late (this being opera, after all) she finds that love was the better choice. The requisite death scene is as powerful and emotional as any you'll find.
Irina Rindzuner brings Manon to life, and captures well the transitions she makes. Marcos Aguiar is Des Grieux, the student who offers love that is not enough at first, but becomes the all at the end. Bojan Knezevic takes on the role of Geronte, the other point of the triangle, who loves and loses and takes his revenge.
All three bring emotion as well as beautiful, strong voices to the story. Rindzuner's arias soar, and Aguiar has no trouble keeping up with her.
Michael Corvino plays Manon's brother with flair and conviction. Alvaro Rodriguez does a nice job as Edmondo. Once again, the ensemble adds a lot of personality and style as well as musicality. And the orchestra, under Barbara Day Turner (in her 7th UFO season), turns in a top-notch performance. Scenery, lighting and costumes are effective and professional.And if it is not music you go away singing in your head, you will find that "Manon" still offers a lot to ponder, to appreciate, to savor.