Among the many splendors of Florida Grand Opera's thrilling new Aïda, not least of them the arrival of a young powerhouse named Angela M. Brown in the title role, is this fact: For the first time in its adventuresome 65-year history, the company and its opera fans have the venue they deserve.
The Carnival Center for the Performing Arts promises not only to stage an immense variety of international entertainment but also to nurture local artists who have long needed a venue worthy of their talents. Holding a special place among these artists is Florida Grand Opera, the oldest of the resident companies and also one of the prime motivators for the construction of the center. Now it's here, and this is a new day for the arts in Miami.
The opening celebrated Miami's musical history. General director Robert Heuer took the stage to introduce company alumni sitting in the audience, an opera honor roll that included Roberta Peters, Tito Capobianco, Rosalind Elias, Diana Soviero, and indomitable soprano Renata Scotto, who made her FGO debut in 1972 and is returning this season to direct a new production of La Sonnambula. Then, after leading the orchestra in a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," conductor Stewart Robertson gave the upbeat for Verdi's Prelude, and the curtain rose on Ada.
A crowd pleaser that happens to be a masterpiece, Ada boasts a tight plot, raw emotions, conflicts that transcend the ages, and some of the most demanding roles in all of opera. A simple 1871 tragedy about an Ethiopian princess enslaved by her Egyptian conquerors, and of an Egyptian officer's impossible love for her, Ada explores common Verdian themes choosing between love of country and love of life, between duty to family and duty to love. Grand, spectacular scenes such as the famous Triumphal March signaling the Egyptian victory, and the holy rites in the Temple of Vulcan alternate with intensely personal, intimate glimpses of real people caught in the maelstrom of history. The opera is, frankly, director-proof a good thing here, since Bliss Hebert's direction amounts to little more than stock stage blocking with virtually no character development but it can rise or fall on sheer vocal power. There was power to spare in this production.
Most powerful in the first performance was Angela Brown's Ada. Her "O Patria Mia," for example, was a model of Verdian singing. Ada's cry of longing for the homeland she will never see again came through in Brown's gorgeous golden tone, evenly produced throughout the range until, narrowing slightly above the staff, it bloomed into a vulnerable womanly sound that recalled Rita Hunter's in her prime. Brown's dynamic shadings were subtle, her intonation flawless, her breath support exemplary, and her phrasing touching and true. This lady is the real thing.
It is no small matter that voices sound great and that the acoustics are warm and clear in the new Ziff Ballet Opera House. One could admire the colors of each thread in Verdi's intricate vocal fabric thanks not only to Maestro Robertson's sensitive touch but also to the hall.
The news is not all good, however: Something weird seemed to happen in the orchestra at the opening, with the ensemble occasionally sounding big and strong and other times most alarmingly in the prelude as if rehearsing in another room. Perhaps whatever doors or vents were opened in the pit during the performance affected the way the orchestral sound projected in the house. The variability suggests this problem can be fixed. Let's hope it is.
But back to the voices. Arnold Rawls wants polish as an actor, and his opening scene as Radames suggested a young voice dangerously overextended. That first impression proved partly wrong. The young tenor grew stronger with the four-hour-plus evening, complete with a very Italianate sob in his voice, thrilling free vibrato, and impressively heroic phrasing. Guang Yang, a hooty mezzo-soprano and a hoot of an actress, perhaps suffered most from the absence of a strong stage director. But her Amneris rose to the occasion with haunting chest tones in the final scene. The lower voices were uniformly splendid: Valerian Ruminski as the King of Egypt and especially Morris D. Robinson as an imposing Ramfis and Gregg Baker as Ada's father Amonasro. The chorus, prepared by Douglas Kinney Frost, was the company's finest in memory.
Allen Charles Klein's sets and costumes were attractive; though, like Kendall Smith's lighting, they sometimes worked against Verdi's dramatic contrasts. At no point was there full sunshine, and the banks of the Nile were as dark as the lovers' tomb. I missed the Act I ballet: It all happened stage right, out of sight to those sitting on the far left side of the house. But the seldom-done ballet for the little prisoners was exquisitely choreographed by Rosa Mercedes and executed by a remarkable, adorable troupe of child dancers Bryan Amber, Caitlin Javech, Balli Logan, Elise Nuevo, and Cristina Trujillo all of whom obviously have a future onstage. Come to think of it, the future is what this new Ada at the Carnival Center is all about.
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