San Francisco Opera steps into the world of street art and hieroglyphics in its new production of Verdi’s Aida which returns to the War Memorial Opera House this week. Directed by Francesca Zambello, this is Aida as you’ve never seen it before, featuring the artistic design of contemporary visual artist RETNA (Marquis Duriel Lewis).
A co-production with Washington National Opera, Seattle Opera and Minnesota Opera, Aida stars soprano Leah Crocetto and tenor Brian Jagde in their role debuts as the lovers Aida and Radames, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk is Amneris – daughter of the Egyptian king – baritone George Gagnidze is Aida’s father Amonasro, and bass Raymond Aceto is the High Priest, Ramfis. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Director Ian Robertson) is led by Company Music Director Nicola Luisotti, with Resident Conductor Jordi Bernàcer taking the final performance on December 6.
Aida was commissioned in 1869 by the Khediv of Egypt, to celebrate the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo. The premiere was delayed because the scenery and costumes were unable to be delivered from Paris, due to the siege of the city in 1870-71, during the Franco-Prussian War, and it wasn’t until December 24, 1871, that the opera opened in Cairo.
Set in Egypt, with a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, Aida takes place during a time of conflict between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians. Radames, a captain of the Egyptian guard is in love with the slave girl Aida, who is really an Ethiopian princess, and daughter of King Amonasro, the sworn enemy of the King of Egypt. Aida’s mistress, Amneris – daughter of the Egyptian king – is also in love with Radames, and is consumed with jealousy when she discovers that her competitor in love is Aida. It’s a tale of love, duplicity and, ultimately, tragedy.
San Francisco Opera’s history with Aida dates back to the Company premiere in 1925, in which Italian soprano Claudia Muzio sang the title role. The opera has since been staged in 32 of SF Opera’s 94 seasons, including the 1957 production in which American soprano Leontyne Price – considered one of the greatest interpreters of the role – performed it for the first time in her career.
The title role in this production is taken by soprano Leah Crocetto, one of today’s rising stars in the world of opera. Ms Crocetto is a former Adler fellow at San Francisco Opera, and has made frequent appearances with the Company, the most recent of which was in the title role of Verdi’s Luisa Miller last season. The 2015-16 season also saw her debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Liù in Puccini’s Turandot, and her first appearance in the title role of Rossini’s Semiramide with Opera National de Bordeaux. Following her performance as Anna in Rossini’s Maometto II with the Canadian Opera Company, Opera News wrote: “… soprano Leah Crocetto’s performance was spectacular in its precision, control and beauty of tone even in Rossini’s most elaborately ornamented passages. Her voice maintained its purity from her crystalline top notes down to her sumptuous low notes”.
Tenor Brian Jagde – “…. the talent to watch for the future!” according to Associated Press – is considered one of the most engaging and exciting artists of his generation, with “Just the kind of voice that both musical and stage directors long to discover,” writes the Washington Times. In San Francisco Opera’s recent summer season, Mr Jagde – a graduate of the Company’s Adler and Merola Programs – sang the role of Don José in the United States premiere of Calixto Bieito’s production of Bizet’s Carmen – a role which he also sang in the Deutsche Oper Berlin production, and in which he made his house debut at Teatro San Carlo – both during the 2015-16 season. Among his role debuts this current season, Mr Jagde will sing Maurizio in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur at the Royal Opera House, and Froh in Wagner’s Das Rheingold in his first appearance with the New York Philharmonic. Other house debuts include the role of Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at Teatro Massimo, Palermo, and for Washington National Opera, Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth at Teatro Real, Madrid, and Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca for Oper Stuttgart.
Ekaterina Semenchuk is a leading soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where she made her debut whilst still a student at the St Petersburg State Conservatory. Described by Operaclick as a “gorgeous mezzo-soprano … gifted with an amazing voice”, Ms Semenchuck’s 2015-16 repertoire included the roles of Marina in Boris Godunov and Polina in Pique Dame at the Metropolitan Opera, Olga in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and Didon in Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the Mariinsky Theatre with Valery Gergiev, and at Carnegie Hall in New York. Future appearances this season include Verdi’s Don Carlos at La Scala, La Forza del Destino and Cavalleria Rusticana at the Metropolitan Opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten at Opéra de Paris, and Il Trovatore, Aida and Don Carlos at Teatro Real, Madrid.
Baritone George Gagnidze is regarded as one of the leading baritones of his time. He appeared as Amonasro at the Paris Opera in June this year, and made his house debut with San Francisco Opera, and also his role debut, as Carlo Gérard in Andrea Chénier at the beginning of this season. “Georgian baritone George Gagnidze was a powerhouse Gérard,” wrote The Mercury News, “singing with unflagging energy, he made the villainous character the most fully dimensional individual onstage.“ Later this season, Mr Gagnidze will again sing the role of Amonasra at the Metropolitan Opera, he will also appear in Andrea Chénier and in Tosca at Deutsche Oper Berlin, and in the role of Šakovlity in Mussorgsky’s Hovanščina at the BBC Proms in London next summer.
American bass Raymond Aceto continues to attract both popular and critical acclaim. Following his recent appearance in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Tosca, Opera News wrote: “Raymond Aceto’s powerful, pathologically evil baron could have carried the night on his own. The varying colors of Aceto’s bass and the nuances of his acting brought realism and depth to the character — predatory, slithering, manipulative in Act I; cruel, taunting and wolfishly greedy in Act II.” Later in the season, Mr Aceto will appear with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Bruckner’s Te Deum, with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in Mozart’s Requiem, and in Gounod’s Faust with New Orleans Opera.
Multi-award winning opera and theater director Francesca Zambello is always a welcome guest at San Francisco Opera, where she served as Artistic Advisor between 2006 and 2011. Her most recent productions for the Company include Verdi’s Luisa Miller, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (which will be revived in June 2018), the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s Two Women and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat. Ms Zambello is General and Artistic Director of Glimmerglass Festival and also Artistic Advisor to the Washington National Opera.
This San Francisco Opera production of Aida has sets by Michael Yeargan, and lighting design by Mark McCullough. Costumes are by Anita Yavich, and choreography by Jessica Lang – both of whom are making their Company debuts.
Also making his debut with the Company, in his first work on a theatrical production, is graffiti artist, muralist and painter, RETNA, who has designed much of the highly unusual scenery and visual presentation. His markedly individual style combines elements of traditional street art with hieroglyphics, as well as Arabic and Hebrew calligraphy.
Since his appointment as Music Director of San Francisco Opera in 2009, Nicola Luisotti has been an enthusiastic proponent of the Italian operatic repertoire. He led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus in acclaimed performances of Verdi’s Don Carlo during the 2016 summer season, and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier at the opening of the current season.
San Francisco Opera’s production of Aida, sung in Italian with English supertitles, opened at the War Memorial Opera House this evening, and runs for eleven performances, until December 6. For further information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website.
San Francisco Opera program notes