Whether the casts for this week’s Aida are the best ever assembled for opera in Hong Kong—they have some competition from Hong Kong Arts Festival productions, including a Simon Boccanegra with Roberto Frontali, Michele Pertusi, Giorgio Berrugi and Erika Grimaldi, and a Traviata with Carmen Giannattasio and José Bros—is the sort of thing opera-goers love to debate. But these others have been traveling productions from overseas operas rather than something developed and produced by a local company.
Aida is among the grandest of grand opera; the story of the Ethiopian princess enslaved at the Egyptian court, her Egyptian warrior lover Radamès and the jealous Amneris, daughter of the Pharaoh, probably needs little introduction. These performances in co-production with the Shanghai Opera House were part of the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the handover; whether it might also celebrate Hong Kong opera’s coming of age remains to be seen.
With six performances in as many days, the company needed multiple casts. These included two of the world’s best-known Aidas in Chinese soprano He Hui and American Kristin Lewis (a third, Marjorie Owens, I did not see) matched by the Amnerises of Violeta Urmana and Nino Surguladze. He Hui and Lewis are known quantities in this role—broadcasts and videos abound—and Urmana is a veteran, and one of the few sopranos who has sung Aida as well as Amneris.
But Opera Hong Kong seems to have a knack for catching some singers just at the point in their careers when it seems they are on the verge of something very special. This time is was Georgian soprano Nino Surguladze. In what appears to be a relatively new role for her, her Amneris seethed, smoldered and reveled as Surguladze flounced around the stage entirely in keeping with the 1950s Cinecittà film-set theme of Jean-Louis Grinda.
Another such performance was Reginald Smith, Jr.’s Amonasro, Aida’s royal father. This young baritone—a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner only two years ago—was not a complete surprise: I had heard him last year at Washington’s Wolf Trap in a young artists’ production of La Bohème. Smith has a physically commanding stage presence and a voice to match.
One would expect a Hong Kong to showcase a greater than average number of Asian performers. He Hui is by now a local audience favorite, as well she should be; she sings in Hong Kong all too rarely and even this time could only manage one performance before flying to New York for a run of Madama Butterfly. Bass Hao Jiang Tian is a suave veteran of the world’s great opera houses of even longer standing. Less expected might be an Uzbekistani tenor. Najmiddin Mavlyanov debuted at Covent Garden just last year; he has sung with the Bolshoi, Mariinsky and Stanislavsky. Mavlyanov is a reminder that singers can, and do, come from everywhere.
The leads were rounded out by Italian tenor Riccardo Massi, who had sung Radamès at the Metropolitan earlier this year and the well-respected Paul Gay, who alternated with Hao Jiang Tian as the high priest Ramfis.
Any one of these performers would be a singer one would make an effort to hear; to have more ten or more all in the same production shows a drawing power that would be unthinkable even a few years ago.