April 10, 2019

Boheme Opera NJ Celebrates 30th Anniversary with Verdi Masterpiece

By Nancy Plum

Boheme Opera NJ is marking its 30th anniversary this season, and the regional opera company is not celebrating quietly. In this past weekend’s productions at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Mainstage Theater, Boheme Opera NJ took on a blockbuster from a master of Italian dramatic opera in Giuseppe Verdi’s monumental Aida. An opera in four acts (the last two are often combined), Verdi’s 1871 Aida was a departure for the composer in that there were no show-stopping arias of vocal fireworks for superstar singers; rather, the technical demands were evenly spread among all performers. The principal singers assembled by Boheme Opera NJ for Friday night’s performance (the production was repeated Sunday afternoon) consistently demonstrated their mastery of Verdi’s rich harmonic score and musical drama. Against a simple set leaving much of the locale depiction to a digital backdrop, the performers in this production were able to easily captivate the audience throughout the poignant story.

The timeframe of Aida is deliberately vague and open to interpretation, described only as during the “Old Kingdom of Egypt” (covering a good four centuries), and  Boheme Opera NJ placed the story “during the reign of the Pharaohs,” with virtual set artist J. Matthew Root’s digital scenery showing settings of Luxor in Upper Egypt and inner tombs of pyramids while the opening orchestral prelude was played. The orchestra assembled in the pit, and led by Artistic Director and Conductor Joseph Pucciatti, began the opera to the digital accompaniment of the Nile River flowing by as lean violins and graceful wind solos moved the tempo along as smoothly as the Nile.

The first individual to sing, bass Martin Hargrove as the High Priest Ramphis, might have been considered a “secondary” character compared to Princess Aida and military captain Radames, but no character in a Verdi opera is really “secondary”— the same vocal power and stamina is required of all. With effortless Italian (the production was presented with English supertitles), Hargrove presented a solid bass sound throughout the performance. Often accompanied by a clean and steady brass section in the orchestra, Hargrove was always in control of the role, whether overseeing the soldiers and townspeople or leading the other characters in a dramatic direction.

The role of Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt, was sung by contralto Alison Bolshoi, formerly an international performer as a dramatic soprano and now at home in the contralto repertory. This role ranged from the vocal basement to the upper stratosphere of the mezzo voice, and Bolshoi proved herself during the evening to be one of the strongest forces onstage. Her Act II duet with Aida (sung by soprano Marsha Thompson) was sung with richness and effective communication between the two well-matched singers and was clearly a high point of the production.

Soprano Thompson brought a background of singing Wagner and Verdi to her performance as Aida, and was convincing and believable from the outset, emerging from her subservient position to Amneris and daughter of the King of Ethiopia to command the stage as a powerful singer and personality. Thompson was always able to be heard over an orchestra which sometimes played too loud, and her Act I prayerful aria claiming her loyalty to both country and family was introspective and lyrical. She presented Aida’s Act II aria “O patria mia” with sensitivity and control, delicately accompanied by Leslie Godfrey’s solo oboe playing.

Tenor Todd Wilander sang the role of Aida’s love interest, Radames, with a bit of vocal trouble from time to time — ending some high passages softly, rather than with the power the drama required, but settled into the character as the opera progressed. Often accompanied by brass fanfares, Wilander effectively captured the military nature of the story. Wilander’s closing scene with Thompson as Radames and Aida were entombed in a vault ended the production with sublime pathos, aided by the placement of the vault in one of the alcoves in the hall, which brought the action closer to the audience.

Other characters were well performed by baritone Kenneth Overton, singing the role of the King of Ethiopia; bass-baritone Charles D. Carter in the role of the King of Egypt; and Emmanuel Acosta, who although he had a small role as the Messenger, sang with a very appealing lyric tenor voice. Joseph Pucciatti prepared a chorus which, although more men would have made a stronger sound, showed a women’s choral sound mastering the high notes well. The brass in the orchestra were especially precise in the well-known Act II “Triumphal March,” and the Princeton Youth Ballet members who joined the action demonstrated clever geometric choreography with impressive lifts and spins.

Boheme Opera NJ chose to celebrate its 30 years of presenting opera with Aida — a theatrical classic, vocal challenge, and audience-pleaser wrapped up in one production. This past weekend’s performances showed that Boheme Opera NJ looks for the highest level of performance in its cast members and is understandably proud of both retaining singers from show to show and introducing new talent to the operatic community.