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Sarah Caldwell's 'Aida': despite all, fascinating

Seven years ago, casting "Aida" hardly seemed a problem.But such is the current drought of big or potentially big voices that even the Metropolitan Opera has withdrawn the opera for at least four seasons to come.

Yet Sarah Caldwell and her dauntless Opera Company of Boston has closed her 22nd season with a fascinating production, which -- by today's standards -- was probably as good as could be had.

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Miss Caldwell set out to present an intimate production as it must have been originally at the small Cairo Opera House world premiere. She also presented a streamlined "Aida" that flowed from one scene to another, uninterrupted through the first two, then the final two, acts. The opera gains immeasurably -- the action veritably catapults toward the Truimphal Scene and, after intermission, toward the denouement.

Designers Herbert Senn and Helen Pond have drastically reduced the Savoy Theater's proscenium with a new one right out of the King Tut exhibit, as if of that sumptuous, bright blue and turquoise Egyptian cloisonne -- glass inlaid in gold. At the top, the winged disk of Horus presides. The sets themselves -- apart from the proscenium and the platforms that extend to the boxes on either side -- are mostly drops painted with perspective, so that a reception room can instantly become a street in Thebes, or a Nile-shoreside temple the inside of the King's palace.

This is a startlingly bright, imposing, handsome production, with a particularly sunny, brilliant setting for a Triumphal Scene and a memorably oppressive, forbidding vault-and-temple for the death of the lovers. These sets , and Ray Diffen's exceptional costumes, give this "Aida" so much. Those costumes are Victorian renderings of Egyptian garb, with everyone suitably overclad (except one conspicuous priest in the second scene), giving the production a very consistent look, and a wonderfully period operatic feel.

Miss Caldwell's direction had its infelicities -- a certain inability to truly trust Verdi in all his specific staging requests in the score. This "improving" on a composer whose knowledge of theater craft was incomparable, led to such silly moments as a preposterous dance for priests where Verdi specifically requested priestesses, and a Triumphal Scene where the small chorus is so vastly deployed around the stage (often singing to the various wings) that there is no aural impact in the big ensembles, rather a wan, thin smear of tone.

But mostly, Caldwell allowed her principals to do their own things -- to gesticulate wildly in a splendidly old-fashioned operatic style with effective results.

Shirley Verrett assumed the title role for the first time in her career. Her assault on the soprano literature has been fraught with pitfalls, but this Aida was not one of them. Though she does not possess the expansiveness of tone, or the ability to float long legato lines requisite for optimum impact in such a Verdi role, she does communicate anguish and intensity at all times. She turns her flat-out tense vocalizing into an asset in her projection of Aida's tortured estate. Ten, even 20 years ago, this would not have been an accepted approach. But by today's standards, it is perfectly valid, and more often than not, convincing. And she is certainly one of the most beautiful Aidas ever to grace an opera stage.

James McCracken has always been just about the best all-around Radames of the past decade, and his heroic interpretation has not changed much at all. It remains intense, noble, utterly committed, and altogether right. He was by far the finest male singer on the stage. Ferruccio Furlanetto as Ramfis revealed a rather dull presence and a thick wobbly bass that sounds too old for his very young years. David Arnold's light, lyric baritone was overtaxed as Amonasro; musical though he may be, in the ensembles, he was lost. Nor did he achieve the presence to convince us that he is the ruler of a mighty people.

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Elizabeth Connell, a mezzo turned soprano (as is Miss Verrett) dipped back to her "roots" to sing Amneris. She has her own ideas about the role -- a few are too coy and ill-suited to a princess of Egypt -- and she gets them across with conviction. At her electrifying best, as in the Judgment Scene, she possesses the presence and the power to ride the orchestra in thrilling fashion. And though she too often approaches the role with a reluctant chest register, her presence and imaginativeness proved welcome, especially in the Aida-Amneris confrontations.

In the pit, Miss Caldwell kept things moving, though again, she does not really trust the music to sell itself, and tends to push and pull too much with the tempi, thereby robbing this remarkable music of some of its impact. The orchestra seemed to have more than passing problems deciphering her enigmatic stick technique.

But overall, this was an exciting and fun "Aida." Even with over half of the balled music missing, it renewed one's awe for Verdi's exceptional ability to blend spectable and intimate drama. Even if Miss Caldwell did not dot her "i's" and cross her "t's," she delivered the only good show of her season in the sort of warhorse she usually shies away from. Here is hoping it looks as well at Wolf Trap, where the production will be seen later this month.

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