Saturday, April 19, 2008 | First, no, there were no live animals in San Diego Opera’s production of “Aida.” Several people actually asked me about that.

Giuseppe Verdi’s classic “Aida,” set to an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, opened to much acclaim in 1871. It remains a paragon with its stirring “Triumphal March” music and the deeply touching “O patria mia” aria.

“Aida” tells the story of Radames, the Egyptian military commander who loves the Ethiopian slave Aida. But Amneris, the daughter of the King of Egypt, loves also Radames. And wouldn’t you know, Aida is Amneris’ slave. Sensing Radames’ distraction, Amneris vows to discover his true love and soon discover Aida as her rival.

After a battle against the Ethiopian enemy, the victorious Egyptian troops return with more captured slaves, among them Amonasro, King of Ethiopia. He also happens to be Aida’s father and he has a plan for Ethiopia’s retaliation on Egypt, but he needs Aida’s help. This sets the stage for disaster.

American soprano Indra Thomas captivated the audience in her San Diego Opera company debut as “Aida.” Her repertoire teems with Verdi roles and her expertise was quite evident on opening night with her clear diction, effortless control and stamina. Thomas’ effervescent voice conveyed sweetness and light yet also effectively expressed sadness and darkness.

Carlo Ventre’s magnificent turn as Radames spurred shouts of “bravo” before the last orchestra notes faded after his first aria. The Uruguayan tenor’s mesmerizing, luxurious voice soared through the air and filled the theater.

Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Mariana Pentcheva made a melodramatic impression as Amneris, the Egyptian princess consumed by jealousy. But Pentcheva’s able-bodied voice matched the royal role well, particularly during Amneris’ frantic pleas to “save” Radames, and she was always fun to watch.

Brazilian tenor José Gallisa’ imposing King of Egypt and American baritone Mark Rucker’s crafty Amonasro were well-cast and made strong impressions.

Conducted with polish by Valéry Rivkin, the orchestra and chorus really hit their strides in Act II; adding richness, gusto and volume. A special shout-out goes to the on-stage trumpeters who enhanced the production exponentially.

Gorgeous lighting by Chris Rynne successfully depicted numerous different effects — from a subterranean tomb to a palace hall. He outdid himself with the exquisite starlit skies over the Nile. Set designer Michael Yeargan’s hieroglyphic backdrops are a feast for the eyes and there are some pretty amazing pieces of scenery that move on motors, like the overhead arches that zoomed into place. Most marvelous prop: a huge military diorama (picture a giant chessboard) that was the centerpiece of the stage in Act I.

Dancers were graceful and alluring and Kenneth Von Heidecke’s inspired, exotic choreography fit well with the production. And the ballet during the “Triumphal March” (the scene where sometimes real animals are used in the processional) went on so long the scene lost a little steam.

Still, San Diego Opera’s translation of “Aida’s” story of passion and resonated with the audience: Sniffles and quiet sobs could be heard throughout the room during Aida and Radames’ tragic last scene. That’s heady stuff.

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