SINGAPORE - The Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) has done it again.
Just as it faces ever-decreasing government funding, the company did a volte-face by presenting its most expensive project to date (just under a million dollars) with a five-night run of Giuseppe Verdi's iconic 1871 opera Aida. Set in ancient Egypt, this lavish opera was last presented here in 1995 by Global Entertainment (Singapore). Opera-lovers might remember that spectacular at the Singapore Indoor Stadium with almost a thousand performers, zoo animals and pyramids.
SLO could never hope to replicate that epic setting. Scaled down were the luxurious extras, but not the music, singing and acting. Australian director Andrew Sinclair's conception centred on the intimate lives of its dramatis personae, angling the love triangle of Egyptian general Radames, Egyptian princess Amneris and her Ethiopian slave-girl Aida into more of a verismo story.
On its opening evening at the Esplanade Theatre on Friday (June 1), the titular role was helmed by the ageless soprano Nancy Yuen, who has a way with portraying wayward teenaged girls like no other. How she maintained an unwavering presence and voice throughout three hours was little short of amazing, culminating in her passionate aria O Patria Mia in Act Three.
Norwegian tenor Thomas Ruud as the conflicted Radames nailed the opening aria Celeste Aida near the beginning of Act One with stunning aplomb. Radames' journey from hero to zero within a single act was also made believable, despite plot-holes so large that a sphinx could be driven through.
Almost single-handedly stealing the show was Mexican mezzo-soprano Grace Echauri's exceptional Amneris whose booming voice was a revelation, especially in the emotional Judgment Scene of Act Four when Radames has his fate sealed off-stage. The sympathy that she garnered might have had the opera's name changed to Amneris. And why not?
They were supported by a very commendable local cast of singers. Baritones Alvin Tan (Ramfis) and Martin Ng (Amonasro) stood out, and there were smaller parts for Jonathan Charles Tay, Cherie Tse and Jack Sun.
BOOK IT / VERDI'S AIDA
WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive
WHEN: Sunday (June 3), 5pm; Tuesday (June 5) and Wednesday (June 6), 8pm
ADMISSION: $48 to $178 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
The SLO Choir (Terrence Toh, chorus master), augmented by Filipino singers, was highly effective in crowd scenes. Only in the Triumphal March of Act Two did their actual number appear underwhelming. That the Ethiopian prisoners comprised just nine children led by Amonasro was almost laughable.
The orchestra led by Thai conductor-opera composer and all-round polymath Somtow Sucharitkul supported the singers well. By playing the extended Act Two ballet scene not often heard in recordings, the audience was treated to a sequence of amusing dance moves (Gani Karim, choreography) that was supposedly Egyptian.
No effort was spared in the costume design by Moe Kasim, generating a riot of colour that was starkly contrasted by Adrian Tan's lighting and Justin Hill's evocative sets that gave the illusion of height and breadth in excess despite operating within a limited space.
It was a spark of genius by Verdi to end a most extravagant of operas with the stillest and quietest of love duets as Aida and Radames await death by entombment. Such contrasts, so trenchantly brought out in this production, truly demonstrate the moving power and magic of opera.