Sondra Radvanovsky's Aida was unveiled Saturday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago amid Biblically-epic sets that were more Bollywood than Egypt. The entire production had the chaotic ambiance of a Cecil B. DeMille set, complete with dozens of extras in preposterous get-ups that screamed tacky Las Vegas instead of Cairo chic. I found the costumes for the principals lacking in style. An azure jersey column for Aida was lovely but unimaginatively designed. Remember Aprile Millo's Nile-green costume dangling with tribal beads from circa 1988? Now that was a frock fit for a love-sick Ethiopian princess. But never mind, the uninspired costuming is beside the point.
None of the vulgar pageantry that transpired on stage would have remotely annoyed me had Radvanovsky gave a searing or, at the very least, committed performance of this touchstone role. While the soprano showed considerable power over chorus and orchestra in the unforgiving Triumphal Scene, effortlessly riding the Tsunami-like wave of sound from stage and pit, I thought she gave a frustratingly lackluster Aida, so decidedly devoid of intimacy and pathos, particularly in moments that required intimacy and pathos. Her "Ritorna vincitor!" was bereft of any real hint of agitation or urgency. "O patria mia," though competently sung, was bland and lifeless. Her diction—lazy, slurred beyond recognition—did not help her either. Like a figure skater faced with the daunting task of mastering a quadruple flip at the Olympics, Radvanovsky attacked the dreaded high C with palpable trepidation; the effect was hardly earth-shattering—the pyramids were unharmed. Her showdown with the crude, underpowered Amneris of mezzo Jill Grove also proved disappointing. Vocally, the soprano was in top form, exhibiting impressive agility and power to burn, but dramatically it was not the nasty cat-fight, claws and all, between two bitter rivals. Both singers lacked the fierceness and nastiness required to set this scene on fire. So, naturally, her confrontation with the impassioned Amonasro of baritone Gordon Hawkins was also a let-down. When the time came for the gorgeous "O terra, addio"—ditto. On what should have been the most suitable time for this Aida to redeem herself by delivering a gut-wrenching, Millo-like farewell to life, the soprano once again succumbed to her customary "safe approach," inducing nary a single tear from my eyes. With the rise and fall of the vocal line written to evoke the soul leaving the body, the duet is one of Verdi's most heartfelt melodies, yet both Aida and Radames (a nasal-sounding Marcello Giordani) squandered the golden moment by refusing to give a part of themselves. Opening night nerves? Was the soprano battling a cold? The mere fact that it is January in Chicago? Or is it perhaps because Aida is simply too gigantic a role for this promising Verdian soprano to tackle this early on in her career?