8 November 2016 was a strange night to be at the San Francisco Opera. By the 7:30pm PST curtain, the winner of the United States presidential election was still uncertain. Intermission saw a rush of phone-checking. (By then, the outcome was clear.) Politics dominated lobby talk during the interval, and the second half of the opera had more empty seats than the first. I can only assume people rushed home to commiserate or celebrate with family and friends, as this Aida didn’t have anything to drive opera fans away.

Unfortunately, it didn’t have much to lure them in, either. Hype about the production focused on the designs of the graffiti artist RETNA (Marquis Duriel Lewis), whose evocative symbols draw inspiration from hieroglyphs and calligraphy. Those symbols, arrayed across walls, banners, and even swords and spears, blend the ancient and modern in a way that is appropriate for the opera. The world of this Aida is a world of extreme war, where every man is either a priest or a soldier and women are colorfully dressed trophies. But production design alone can’t carry an opera – that requires good direction as well. 

The modern setting notwithstanding, Francesca Zambello’s staging approach for Aida is old-fashioned. Both principals and choristers rarely have anything to do onstage other than stand and sing. The static quality of the production is broken only by dance sequences with impressive, athletic choreography but muddled storytelling. The direction does little to bring out dramatic depth in the performances; a cast with uneven acting abilities seem to have been left largely to their own devices.

In her role debut as Aida, Leah Crocetto was the most commanding vocally and the most adrift dramatically. Her tone, consistently full and round, had great carrying power even in its softest moments. And there were plenty of those; Crocetto employed wide dynamic range in her arias, with her voice alternately booming and shimmering. While her vocal choices were emotionally expressive, they seemed unmotivated, as did her movements. As a result, I never got a visceral sense of her desire and desperation and never empathized with her plight.

Brian Jagde’s Radamès (also a debut) was less vocally secure. The whole initial scene, including “Celeste Aida”, sounded strained. Later in the evening, Jagde’s voice settled into a firm sound with powerful top notes. His honest acting, particularly his tenderness in the final tomb scene, broke my heart. Ekaterina Semenchuk was the third member of the doomed love triangle as the princess, Amneris. Her wide range includes a gravelly bottom and a ringing top, with great richness of tone throughout. She lent her character a wonderful cattiness, which transformed into grandiose anger and pleading despair. 

As Aida’s father Amonasro, George Gagnidze was a proud, menacing presence with a smooth voice with lots of character. Raymond Aceto’s Ramfis, sung in a deep, full bass, was power-happy, smiling cruelly at Amneris’ evident pain. Anthony Reed was stiff and uncomfortable as the King of Egypt, apparently overly focused on producing sound to the exclusion of acting (or even walking naturally onstage). Pene Pati had a brief but impressive solo turn as the Messenger, singing with an exciting, edgy tenor and exuding an air of total panic.

Nicola Luisotti led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra through a silvery overture to the forceful strains of the opera’s grand choruses and marches. Coordination issues plagued the first scene, but the singers and orchestra were well-timed and well-balanced for the rest of the opera. Special mention goes to the banda of herald trumpets for their pre-opera fanfare on the balcony of the opera house as well as their strong trumpeting in Act II. Aida is a chorus-heavy opera, and the San Francisco Opera Chorus were in fine voice. The men delivered an especially rousing “Guerra! Guerra!” in the first scene, and the women opened the second scene with a heavenly “Immenso Fthà”, led by Toni Marie Palmertree as the Priestess.

Opera can be a much-needed escape from the outside world of work and worry and politics. This Aida carried me away musically, but not dramatically.