As revealed in the matinee of "Aida" Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, second casts are not always second-best. Camellia Johnson (Aida), Eugenie Grunewald (Amneris) and Vladimir Popov (Radames) carried the day when they took over at the second performance this season of Verdi's opera in a new production by Opera Pacific.
Johnson's sizable and luscious soprano, edgeless to a fault, apparently found no difficulties in the familiar yet tricky vocal part. Her "O patria mia" had an Italianate resonance, an even line, incipient passion and a pristine high C that a cynic might associate with dollars in the bank.
The soprano is short and bulky but moves with dignity; on this occasion she wore an unobtrusive, flattering rust-colored costume.
The series of evening gowns worn by Grunewald, on the other hand, seemed an odd collection not exactly fitting to the Egyptian milieu. The American mezzo's singing, however, proved solid, sometimes potent--especially in the Judgment Scene--despite a wiry bottom octave. Her Amneris became more villain than victim, the result, one supposes, of primitive stage direction--or acting skills.
Popov, at the start of the opera clearly uncomfortable in his raised gold shoes, sang confidently and with considerable heart. His "Celeste Aida" was no model of subtlety, but proved a decent beginning; thereafter, his reliable and fearless vocalism gave no cause for disappointment.
His voice is neither large nor beautiful, but it is always there. And he looked good.
The remainder of the cast was reviewed after the opening night, Saturday.