Friday, August 2, 2013

Aida at Brott Festival

Last night I attended the Aida concert performance presented by the Brott Music Festival at the McIntyre Centre for the Performing Arts at Mohawk College. It was an interesting and unique experience which I enjoyed although, apparently, not as much as many of the audience who gave it a standing O. Indeed, some of them stood to applaud at the end of the first half! I'm surprised at how often I see standing ovations, as if it's somehow expected.  I can't imagine what they'd do if they heard an extraordinary performance. (The McIntyre Theatre, a multi-purpose facility seating about 1100, has great sight lines and you can hear everything played or sung on-stage, but is absolutely dead and thus not an ideal venue for music performances.)

It is now 25 years since Boris Brott founded this festival before which he had been the long-time conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. This year he and his team will have presented 14 concerts from June through mid-August ranging from the Bach Brandenburgs to Broadway Heroes. Four more concerts remain this year. Among them, Ian Parker will play the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F next Wednesday, August 7 and a week later, on the 15th they wrap up with Mahler's Eighth Symphony (aka The Symphony of a Thousand).

Boris Brott

I had expected a full blown concert read-through of the opera and that's not what I got although, in retrospect, considering the audience (clearly not comprised, for the most part, of regular opera goers), the duration of the opera and the limits of the available forces what they did was more appropriate.

There was a narrator, Aubrey Boothman, who played Giuseppe Verdi, and filled in the story and sometimes clarified the plot. Translations of the sung text were projected on large screens to either side of the stage. During dance music and the Triumphal Scene there were video clips from a Metropolitan Opera performance.

Here's how it began. The narrator told the backstory of the opera and recounted the events of opening minutes of Act I. Then, without the music which precedes it, David Pomeroy launched into the Se quel guerrier io fosse! recitative with its accompanying brass fanfares and Celeste Aida, one of the most famous of tenor arias.

And that's what the evening was like.  We were done shortly after 10:00 P.M., including a lengthy intermission. Sections of the opera and some entire scenes (like the trial of Radames in Act IV) were omitted and their action replaced by narration.

Yet it worked just fine. The big arias, duets and trios were all sung and played as was most of the monumental music for which this opera is best known among those lovers of classical music who aren't necessarily opera buffs.

The aforementioned David Pomeroy was a sturdy Radames. He's sung Hoffman at the Met and is now singing spinto tenor roles in Canadian opera houses. He is well suited to this role, which demands heroic singing and not much subtlety, but sang some lovely quiet high Bbs in the closing trio.

The role of Aida is one of the most demanding in all of opera and if a soprano can sing it and look the part she's likely doing it in an opera house somewhere. The part was taken last night by veteran soprano Sharon Azrieli. She is at home with the role and can sing the pianissimo high notes that this role requires although last night she sometimes struggled to blend them with the rest of her voice.

Mezzo Emilia Boteva was outstanding as Amneris. I heard her as Azucena at Opera Hamilton last season and really enjoyed her singing and portrayal of the character. If anything, she was even better in this which displayed her high register.

Gregory Dahl was a very convincing Amonasro. He's a true Verdi baritone, his voice full and somewhat dark but with ringing high notes. I look forward to hear ing him again on the COC main stage as Silvano in Ballo in Maschera. He's also covering Mandryka in Arabella at the Met.

Most of the important role of Ramphis was cut in this performance which is unfortunate since Olivier Laquerre sang what was left of it beautifully. Michael York capably sang the short part of Il Re, the King of Egypt.

The Arcady Singers fared better than I expected, considering that there are only 26 of them. That's not nearly enough voices for this most monumental of all Italian operas.

The National Academy Orchestra was conducted by apprentice conductor Brendan Hagan and by Brott himself who has recently been named Principal Guest Conductor of Teatro Petruzelli in Bari.

The National Academy Orchestra is a training orchestra with only six professional players who mentor their sections. It is, however, a very fine orchestra and played extremely well. It's a bit of a stretch, though, for two trumpeters to cover the parts in this opera which includes herald trumpets and an off-stage brass band in full productions!

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