Teatro Real 2022-23 Review: Aida (First Cast)

Jamie Barton Shines Brightest in Revival of Late Verdi Masterwork

By Mauricio Villa

Last week, I provided my thoughts on the other cast of this production of “Aida,” starring soprano Anna Netrebko. But I also had a chance to experience the opera on Nov. 6 with the opening night cast.

While the star of that original cast was the lead soprano, here it turned out to be someone else.

Star of the Night

Prior to the opening of the production, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton took the spotlight when she first published that she was proud of performing in this production, following the Teatro Real’s announcement that it would be abandoning Blackface in this production. Later on, users on social media pointed out to her that the wig was also cultural and racial appropriation and the mezzo took the social media to apologize.

She maintained that spotlight on the stage, providing a potent characterization as Amneris with a rich dark sound, strong low register, and ringing high notes. She was the undoubtedly strongest voice in this cast and her voice was strongly present during the big second act concertante, emitting two strong B naturals that were perfectly audible over her colleagues, the choir, and the forte orchestra; it’s a truly stunning feat when you consider that Aida and the entire soprano section of the choir are all singing high notes.

The highlight of her performance was her long scene in Act four – the duet with Radamès and the subsequent confrontation with the priests. Here we saw Barton use all of her dramatic resources to deliver a strong character arc  of seeing Amneris beg Radamès for his love, her disappointment at his refusal, followed by her terrible rage against the Egyptian priests once Radames is condemned to be buried alive. She ended the scene with a thunderous high A natural, as well as culminating the last bars of the opera with sonorous and pained low D flats on ”Pace t’imploro.”

Not Quite Right

In the title role, Stoyanova’s “Ohimé, di guerra fremere,” which demands a crescendo/diminuendo in a high A natural, was a clear example of what was to come: a round voice with fair natural vibrato, modest in volume, and with a tendency to sing forte without much variety in dynamics. Stoyanova was a lyrical Aida, secure in her high notes and with a beautiful timbre. Unfortunately, her voice lacked projection and it was very difficult to hear her during multiple ensemble moments; her first B natural on “Sventurato” (while singing alongside the mezzo-soprano and tenor) was barely audible and her first high C on “deggio amarlo” was similarly impossible to hear.

Her interpretation of her arias “Ritorna vincitor” and “Oh patria mia” were full of delicacy and sorrow, but lacked dramatism due to the modest volume of the soprano. As in her final scene in Act four, these pages demand lyricism and ethereal singing in the upper register, but even Stoyanova’s intent to sing decrescendos or pianissmi high notes (like the B flats on “Ma tu re, tu signore possente” or the already mentioned final scene) turned out to be weak and unnoticeable. She did not even try to sing the high C in her second aria with the indicated “pp dolce” but emitted the note in full voice and with an extra quick breath before the high note, breaking the expansive legato line.

It was during her duets with Ammeris and Amonasro where her voice was unable to portray the dramatism required for the scenes. Stoyanova overdarkened the central and middle register, but her low register, with no chest resonance,  and her light sound from G upwards simply didn’t work for this dramatic role.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala portrayed the hero Radamès. Since debuting this role last summer in Salzburg, the tenor’s pure, lyrical voice has grown in volume in the middle and upper register, and his Italian diction has improved from the passagio upwards (where the tenor’s method of covering the passagio zone and his technique of voice production usually sacrificed diction in order to emit a secure sound). His large experience in the Bel-canto repertoire enables him to sing the difficult opening aria “Celeste Aida” with  long fluid fraseo and sweetness, even though his attempts to do diminuedi at the end of the lines were timid; the final B flat was sung with power and full volume, despite being written ”pp morendo.” Moreover, when he tried to sing B flats with the indicated pp markings, like in his third act and fourth act duets with Aida, the tenor switched to “falsetto,” emitting a weak plain sound, that lacked brightness and color.

Still, he managed the heroic moments, including the “praying scene” in Act one, the big ensemble scene which closes the second act, his arduous entrance “Pur ti riveggo mia dolce Aida,” and his vibrant third act ending “Sacerdote, io resto a te” quite well. Unfortunately, this kind of potent singing didn’t translate in the big ensemble moments as his lyrical sound lacked the punch to cut through the density of soloists, choir and orchestra; his voice disappeared completely for moments during the big final concertante in Act two.

The Spanish baritone Carlos Àlvarez portrayed the role of Amonasro, Aida’s father and king of the Ethiopian. He possesses a beautiful, dark instrument with a dramatic quality. But he didn’t seem to be in top form on this night as his voice did not carry easily over the orchestra as it usually does. In fact, he sounded tired, and the attack on some of the high F and F sharps turned out to be tense and pushed. It might be casual or anecdotic but he stop singing for two bars during “sposa felice a lui che amasti tanto” (he either forgot the text or had doubts with the tempo or the melody) and was ahead of the orchestra during “no, tu non sei colpevole…” for several bars. Those are usual common errors in live performances, and I usually do not point them out, but in this case, they might indicate that the baritone was simply having an off-night. Àlvarez is charismatic artist who has enjoyed a long and great career. He has created a high standard for himself with good singing and terrific acting on almost every night I have experienced his artistry. Unfortunately, this was not one of them.

Alexander Vinogradov was a solid Ramfis who, like most of his colleagues, lacked volume and projection and therefore could not imprint the vocal weight and dignity that this character demands.

Ultimately, this first cast performance of “Aida” where all the dramatic weight and vocal power came mainly from mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton who, deservedly, received the greatest ovation of the night.

***Worth Mentioning

This is unusual for most reviews, but since this is the only other review for this production, it is worth mentioning the participation of the baritone Artur Rucinski as an alternative Amonasro in some performances because he is definitively one of the greatest baritones of this generation. He has it all: elegant legato singing (often sung in one breath), an ability to sing dynamics through his whole tessitura, and unlimited resources to color his velvety dark voice.

On the night I saw him perform, his Amonasro was authoritative and powerful. He offered, at the same time, moments of beautiful singing, such as “Ma tu, re, tu signore possente a costoro ti volgi clemente,” delivered in a single fiato (singers usually take a breath in the middle of the line) as he sang this whole fragment with fluidity and sweetness. His duet with Aida in the third act was menacing, accusative, and even abusive; he delivered the line: ”Non sei mia figlia, dei faraoni tu sei la schiava” with extreme cruelty as well as strong supported and projected high G flats.

Amonasro is not a long role, but it is written in an uncomfortably high tessitura for a baritone, navigating constantly around the F above the stave, and demanding sweet legato singing as well as a strong vocal weight for the more dramatic moments. Rucinski’s singing sounds so effortlessly and easy that you just focus on his incarnation of Ethiopian king and forget how difficult the score is.


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