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[whitespace] Nmon Ford-Livene Moving to a Higher Level: Nmon Ford-Livene carried 'Aida' to new heights.


SJ Symphony wars with cell phones at 'Aida' concert

By Scott MacClelland

IF YOU LOVE to wallow in the sound of cellular phones ringing, then at Sunday's Flint Center performance of Verdi's Aida you found yourself in pig heaven. Those icons of technology seemed to go off every time the title character was pleading for pity.

The first time, it seemed she wanted deliverance from ringing phones. But by the second, when her dramatic plight had only worsened, a cell phone might have been just the deus ex machina she needed. (It should be noted that while none of the ringing cell-heads in the audience lifted a finger to help the hapless Ethiopian princess, a multitude of non-cell phone patrons did lift a finger. What does it all mean?)

In the meantime, lots of people on the stage were trying to perform an opera. Or at least a concert based on Verdi's grand spectacle of power politics, loyalty, betrayal, treachery and love. At its service were half a dozen accomplished soloists, a large chorus and the San Jose Symphony, all under the direction of Leonid Grin.

One intermission separated the first two acts from the last two and marked a sharp divide between the stiffly formal first half and the emotion-charged second. The dramatic distance between the two had less to do with Verdi's design than with the spark that inspired the soloists to become the characters they were there to portray.

That spark was Nmon Ford-Livene, whose Nile Scene portrayal of Amonasro moved the entire performance to a higher level. Suddenly, by the force of his personality, the concert became the opera. Amonasro's ugly job is to compel Aida, his teenage daughter, to extract a military secret from her lover, Radames, spelling certain doom for one or the other.

After being crushed by Amonasro's horrific images of a destroyed homeland, Aida's desolation is echoed with stark emptiness by unison cellos, until she acknowledges her duty. Then, with a sudden shift from minor to major, from icy cold to sunny warmth, Amonasro gives comfort and tenderness to his shell-shocked daughter. Ford-Livene dominated the scene, vocally and theatrically.

The Aida of Elena Filipova, who had struggled with vocal control, rose with the occasion. (Her "O patria mia" at the beginning of the scene was a tattered vocal exercise as much out of focus as in.) Then in her subsequent encounter with Radames, she drives the outcome that traps her lover and (in the ensuing confusion) allows her and her father to escape captivity by their enemies. She'd come a long way, baby.

In Act IV, Carmella Jones took over big time as Amneris, raising her own game to the level of Ford-Livene's, and certainly defining the most powerful female character of the day. Force of personality led the charge, with vocal production flowering in its wake.

As Radames, Louis Gentile's performance also came up--if never to the heroic authority the character is supposed to reflect. Gentile's account seemed primarily preoccupied with matters of vocal technique. The tomb scene, with Filipova, found him at his best.

Philip Skinner as Ramfis, the priest, and Christopher Dickerson as the king of Egypt laid the most solid vocal foundation of the afternoon's first half, with bassos gloriously profundo. Not only did they set the tone for the other soloists, but they also gave a crucial focal point to the chorus and orchestra from which Grin had difficulty arousing intensity.

Neither the dance of the Moorish slaves nor the triumphal scene itself delivered the impact of Verdi's massed resources. Not even elephants on stage would have helped here. From within the chorus, Christina Major conveyed fine solo work as a priestess. The choral force of some 175 voices included the choraliers, chorale and concert choir from San Jose State, as directed by Charlene Archibeque and Elena Sharkova, plus Jeffrey Amorosa's Santa Clara Men's Chorus.

More than any other Verdi opera, Aida wants to be staged. With this work, the composer trumped the "Grand Opera" tradition of the early-19th-century French composers. Nevertheless, a concert production has its merits. In that case, the burden of theatrics would seem to belong to the conductor. For this performance, however, those values emerged--slowly--among the soloists.

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From the June 15-21, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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