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'AIDA,' THE ROMANTIC REBIRTH OF A BUFFALO OPERA LEGEND

Greater Buffalo Opera Company is going back to its roots.

By its reckoning, the company dates its birth to September 1986, when the predecessor Buffalo Lyric Opera Theater announced its formation, under the artistic leadership of Gary Burgess, and plans for a gala production of Verdi's "Aida," with two performances Nov. 21 and 23.

Less than a year later, Buffalo Lyric merged with the region's other major opera producing company, Western New York Opera Theater, with Burgess taking over as artistic director of the amalgamated companies.

With Burgess' presence providing the obvious line of continuity, the upcoming 1995-96 season has been designated Greater Buffalo Opera's 10th anniversary.

What better way to celebrate the event, according to Burgess, than to reprise the opera with which the fledgling company had taken wing, "Aida."

Performances of the 10th anniversary production of "Aida" are set for 8:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. next Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center. It will be sung in Italian, with English supertitles.

Producing "Aida" 10 years ago represented a great leap of faith for Buffalo Lyric Opera. Not only is it one of the operatic repertoire's great spectacles, and difficult to stage, but it is also full of dramatic cross-tensions and subtleties, requiring careful balancing of excellent orchestral playing with singing ranging from heroic to intimate, all against a backdrop of dramatic staging which makes the emotions of the principal characters come across the footlights with convincing impact.

The Buffalo News' review of the 1986 "Aida" indicated that most of these criteria were well met, enough to hang the "successful production" sign on the opening night performance.

In this 10th Anniversary Season, Greater Buffalo Opera has a lot more experience under its belt, and it is not unreasonable to expect that the standards will now be set a bit higher.

But in addition to Artistic Director Gary Burgess, there's another line of continuity linking this season's "Aida" with the production of 1986.

The role of Amonasro, king of Ethiopia and father of the heroine Aida, will be sung by baritone Mark Rucker, the only returnee from the 1986 cast. The Buffalo News' review referred to Rucker as having "a steady, centered quality in his voice which draws attention, especially effective in his strongly impassioned entreaty before the throne in the Triumphal March scene."

At that time Rucker was fresh from a victory in the second Pavarotti Competition. Since then, he has made the role of Amonasro his own, singing it in productions in Cincinnati, Portland, Honolulu, Knoxville, Mexico City and Dublin, followed by a recording for the Naxos label.

This may be stretching the notion of continuity just a trifle, but the presence of conductor Raymond Harvey in Shea's pit for next week's "Aida" does represent a link with Buffalo's recent music history.

Harvey was associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1983 to 1986. As a matter of fact, he was packing up to leave and take over as music director of the Springfield (Mass.) Symphony Orchestra at the same time Buffalo Lyric Opera Theater announced plans to make its debut with "Aida," so he was well aware of, and very interested in, this important expansion in Buffalo's musical life.

To prove this, Harvey returned to Buffalo to conduct the GBOC's 1989 production of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," winning plaudits from The News for his sensitive direction of the pit version of the Buffalo Philharmonic and his ability to maintain proper balances with the singers.

This time around the title role will be sung by soprano Nina Edwards. She is a recent graduate of Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, whose superb voice program has furnished so many excellent singers for recent productions at Artpark and other Western New York voice venues. This will be Edwards' first Aida. When she sang Amelia in Verdi's "A Masked Ball" a reviewer said she "opened up her big, shining soprano to thrilling effect in all the climaxes, but also fashioned a seamless legato in more introspective moments." Dramatic mezzo Edna Garabedian will sing one of her specialty roles, that of Amneris, the Egyptian princess to whom Aida has become a slave. During productions in the German opera houses at Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, reviews said she "sang Amneris with unprecedented intensity, moving through states of frenzied madness until, in the final scene, she resembled a tombstone monument of mourning."

Egyptian army commander Radames, with whom the Ethiopian slave Aida has the ill fortune to fall in love, will be sung by Canadian tenor Edd Wright. It's a role he has previously sung with the Syracuse Opera and in a concert performance with the Columbus (Ga.) Symphony.

These are the principal roles in "Aida." Leading secondary roles will be sung by bass Edward Russell (Ramfis), bass Samuel Smith (King of Egypt), Buffalo tenor Philip Quinn (Messenger) and Buffalo soprano Ann Kennedy (High Priestess).

In the world of opera, the director is responsible for turning all these singers into actors who convey with the body and facial expression, as well as the voice, the opera's searing emotions to the audience and move naturally and purposefully around the stage.

For "Aida," that responsibility falls to Joseph Bascetta, who recently won the Show Business Award for Best Director for his work in Carlisle Floyd's opera "Susannah" and Robert Ward's opera "The Crucible." Bascetta is no stranger to Buffalo, having previously directed Verdi's "Otello," "Il Trovatore," "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto," plus the famous one-act double bill "Cav-Pag." By now he should be familiar with what can and can't be done on the Shea's stage.

As for the opera itself, the GBOC has come up with a pretty good mini-precis in its advertising tagline for the production: "Her father may be killed. Her homeland conquered. But who cares? She's in love."

The "she," of course, is the Ethiopian Princess Aida, captured by the Egyptians and now in servitude to Princess Amneris. Amneris is in love with her country's soldier/hero Radames. But Radames, disregarding rank, has fallen in love with Aida. To make matters worse, it's mutual.

What's a girl to do? If Aida chooses love, she betrays her father Amonasro, King of Ethiopia. If she opts for patriotism and family loyalty, she betrays the man she really loves.

These tensions are played out amid scenes ranging from dark mystery to radiant splendor. The glitter and pageantry of the famous Triumphal Scene marks "Aida" as one of the most spectacular of the repertoire's truly "Grand Operas." A potential pitfall is letting the glitz of the big scenes skew the balance with the scenes of personal emotional crisis. Both are of equal importance in making "Aida" dramatically viable, but either way this opera always has been, and still remains, an extraordinary audience-pleaser.

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