Bay Shore Opera’s Aïda

By Scott MacClelland

I ATTENDED VERDI’S AÏDA Saturday at Veterans Memorial in Santa Cruz in the hope of publishing a review ahead of next Sunday’s repeat. The production, by Bay Shore Lyric Opera, had as many strengths as weaknesses, in the latter case the orchestra of 2 violins and 1 each, viola, flute, clarinet, bassoon, electronic keyboard and conductor. Missing in action were a named cellist and trumpetist. Except for the bassoon, keyboard, 1 violin and viola, the personnel for next Sunday will all be different. (As to whether a cellist and trumpetist appear remains to be seen.) Marie Louise Catsalis conducted on Saturday; her replacement will be Michael Moran. These instrumental deficiencies nearly sank the boat. 

I had not been aware of Bay Shore Lyric’s activities for most of the last 20 years, since they staged numerous operas in a Capitola theater now torn down. Then, as now, the driving force is Jennifer Der Torossian, a polymath soprano of remarkable ambition and a non-operatic day job, who took the title role of the Ethiopian princess as well as designing and building the set and props and designing the costumes. Der Torossian got and exhibits first-class training, with sharp-edged high notes and a dramatically guttural mezzo register, plus a keen stage sense, all used to powerful effect as Verdi’s melodramatic heroine.

But it was tenor David Gustafson (pictured) who gobsmacked the house with his commanding and charismatic performance as Radamès, from the powerful opening “Celeste Aïda” to the fragile death scene in the tomb to which he is sentenced to die for betraying his native Egypt. How Bay Shore captured this brilliant talent is some kind of magic trick, unless he sought the opportunity to learn the role. In any case, he dominated it and could easily do the same in any opera house in the world. (His resume documents a growing career, principally concentrated on the West Coast; he made his San Francisco Opera debut in 2010.)

The cast also includes the veteran mezzo-soprano Liliane Cromer as Amneris and J.T. Williams as Amonasro. The Egyptian king was Eric Coyne, but he will be replaced by Stephen Miller. Ramphis (the high priest) was Gene Wright, and he will be replaced by Eric Coyne.

The climactic scene of the opera, known as the Nile Scene, pits Amonasro, the captured Ethiopian king, against his daughter, Aïda, in order to get Radamès, her lover, to disclose by what route he will lead the Egyptian army against its Ethiopian counterpart. Done well, it’s a hair-raising moment when Aïda, an infatuated but naïve teenager, fully realizes the betrayal of Radamès her father is demanding of her. The orchestra slowly plays a single, sinuous but desolate melody as she sings, “O patria, quanto mi costi.” (Oh my country, what you cost me!)

But it made no impact here. There wasn’t enough orchestra to sustain the slow weight of the moment, and the conductor had no choice but to barrel through it. Moreover, Williams’ lightweight baritone brought no gravitas to the encounter, making his attempt to persuade Aïda to do his bidding unconvincing. (Indeed, Gene Wright would have been a better choice for the role.)

Eric Coyne knew the role of the king, but what once must have been his vocal control had sadly lost vibrato to a hopeless wobble.

All of these miscues suggest poor planning and “make do” performance standards. Or, put another way, a rush job, which does not seem to bode well for Bay Shore’s next production in Santa Cruz, one month from now, of Bellini’s Norma—vocally an even more demanding work—and Verdi’s Falstaff in September.

While you can count on Der Torossian, Cromer and Gustafson to deliver, the rest of Sunday’s performance has to be considered a roll of the dice.