Opening a promising summer season at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, the 7-year-old Bel Canto Opera Company attempted that most daunting of Verdian masterpieces, "Aida," Sunday night. The lesson: Overreaching is not commendable; small achievement is still small.
With talented singers of emerging accomplishments but with a conductor who consistently failed to lead and with stage direction apparently based on the acting-with-arms school of drama, the Westside company, admirably dedicated to giving new singers opportunities and bringing opera to L.A. audiences at a reasonable price, should have eschewed the opportunity to move uptown. It barely met the composer's demands.
Attended by a large and loyal audience--which proved its dedication by remaining until the final notes, just before 11 p.m.--this performance had only a few successful moments. They came mostly in Act 3, in which the Aida, Marya Basaraba, and Radames, Carlo Mancini, met the musical challenges most of the time, and conductor Kay Otani solved the problem of tempo sluggishness that infected the rest of the opera. Forgetting a shaky high C in "O patria mia," the two principals sounded nearly Italianate and adequately musical in the Nile Scene.
For the most part, so did Lizbeth Lucco (Amneris) and Zenon Kesik (Amonastro). Here, as elsewhere in the opera, Ira Barzell proved both woolly and tremulous as Ramfis.
The rest of the proceedings fell short, particularly in the areas of musical thrust and excitement. Neither in the above-stage pit nor on the broad, curtain-free Ford stage, set with a few Egyptian props but no scenery, did a leader emerge.
Basaraba, lithe and slender and gowned with almost inappropriate glamour (certainly more gorgeously than poor Princess Amneris, who wore matronly rags), sang Aida's notes conscientiously, if often with inconsistent technique. Mancini looked stolid and uncomfortable in an unflattering costume. When his voice warmed up, in the final acts, he made strong and attractive sounds.
The ever-following Otani and his brave, small orchestra--looking to number around 24--sounded prepared only some of the time. And Bill di Donato's semaphore-heavy stage direction consistently fell short of communicating the opera's subtleties.
A large, ungainly and ill-tuned chorus, trained by Elizabeth Brahm Kriger, filled out Donato's unimaginative staging scheme.
A high point: The small contingent of dancers--five young women, two young men and six children--performing Stella Gardiner's clever choreography with style added a bright spot in an otherwise depressing performance.