Watching and listening to Kelebogile Besong perform the role of Aida, it was impossible for opera lovers not to think of Leontyne Price. On Thursday, the young South African soprano made her North American debut in the role at Segerstrom Concert Hall, and as her remarkable portrayal of Verdi’s ill-fated heroine unfolded, many in the audience probably had a second poignant thought: what a tragedy that Besong is only performing it three times.
Such are the frustrations of opera in Orange County these days. Since the demise of Opera Pacific in 2008, we have had to make do with Pacific Symphony’s brief once-a-year productions that commingle singers and orchestra on a tight stage with only the barest wisp of a set.
It’s far less than a performer of Besong’s caliber deserves. Only 28, she is already renowned for her interpretation of the doomed Nubian princess. Her gravitas, superb acting and deeply expressive voice distinguished a stark and riveting 2015 production of “Aida” at Sweden’s Malmö Opera.
Comparisons to Price are inevitable. She owned the role during her long and distinguished career, and Besong counts the American soprano among her biggest influences. But Besong’s Aida is no mere imitation. Her voice and acting create a perfect synergy that’s rare even among opera’s greatest performers.
We sense the weight of Aida’s tragic circumstances throughout Besong’s performance. At the beginning of the opera she kneels in the sand, sifting it slowly through her hands as if sensing her fate. This Aida intuits her demise from the moment we first lay eyes on her.
In the beginning of the third act, Verdi wrote one of his most hauntingly beautiful arias for Aida, “O patria mia.” Knowing she will never marry her lover, Radames, she sings of missing her homeland and contemplates suicide. The song ends on a quiet high C, notoriously difficult to pull off while maintaining the right mood. Besong’s performance was magnetic and perfectly controlled. A consummate actor, she made the moment intimate and raw without overdoing it. The hankies came out in droves.
Besong wasn’t the only reason to see the opera, of course. Mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic conjured a few mesmerizing moments as Amneris, Aida’s haughty and high-born master. Her voice wasn’t perfect on Thursday – low notes were sometimes under-supported – but at its best her voice is golden and burnished.
Tenor Arnold Rawls was convincing as Radames, especially in the scene when the young general rejects Ameneris’ three attempts to save his life. A simple promise to reject Aida is all she asks; he can’t grant it. Rawls’ Radames was quiet yet overwhelmed with passion.
Baritone Mark Delavan brought a regal bearing to Aida’s father, Nubian king Amonasro. As the King of Egypt, Philip Skinner’s rumbling bass voice was sometimes foggy and indistinct, but the concert hall’s acoustics are less than ideal when an opera cast shares the stage with a full orchestra.
Pacific Symphony conductor Carl St.Clair marshaled the combined forces of the singers, the orchestra and the Pacific Chorale efficiently under trying circumstances – his back is to the action, most of which happens in a small downstage sandbox. Choir and orchestra sounded polished and well rehearsed.
Director Mary Birnbaum’s staging featured an ingenious set by Grace Laubacher: a group of pyramids and other Egyptian architectural icons seemed solid but were sculpted from sand. Costume designer Kathryn Wilson kept the historical period of the setting annoyingly indistinct by melding eras. One unexpected pleasure: several sprightly dancers enlivened the Egyptian palace (the choreographer, sadly, was not credited). Such touches are a good solution for bare-bones opera: when there’s no set, give us action to look at.
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