TAMPA — Anton Coppola went out with Aida, the grandest of grand operas by Verdi, for the conductor's final performance as artistic director of Opera Tampa. The Sunday matinee was a fitting swan song for the venerable maestro — he turned 95 in March — after 17 seasons of leading the company. An adoring crowd of 2,276 took it all in at Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
Aida has three major roles, and Sunday's performance did well by two of them. As the title character, Rosa D'Imperio was often thrilling as the Ethiopian princess who is enslaved by the Egyptians, her high notes soaring above and through the tumult of sound in the triumphal scene. Aida is a passionate, all-encompassing challenge, and except for occasional muddiness in her lower register, D'Imperio was deeply moving.
Also outstanding was Stacey Rishoi as Amneris, the Egyptian princess and romantic rival of Aida, both being in love with Radames, commander of the Egyptian army in battle with the Ethiopians. Rishoi's princess had something of the petulant, flouncing ingenue to her, but she came to the dramatic fore in Verdi's withering blast against the Egyptian clergy in Act 4. Only Marc Heller as Radames disappointed, underpowered and cloudy of tone in Celeste Aida, though he made a tender impression in the tomb duet.
Gustav Andreassen was suitably dark and heavy as the high priest Ramfis. Mark S. Doss was Amonasro, father of Aida, and the father-daughter scene by him and D'Imperio was riveting. George Cordes lacked vocal heft as the King of Egypt in the patriotic anthem of Act 1. Manuel Castillo had the small role of the messenger.
Other highlights were the excellent work by the voice of the High Priestess (Vanessa Isiguen) and the chorus (prepared by Gregory Ruffer) in the invocation of Phtha; the marvelous brass playing throughout in the orchestra; and the young dancers from Next Generation Ballet in Peter Stark's choreography.
Aida flirts with kitsch, given its setting. It's hard not to think of an old Hollywood sand-and-sandal epic while watching it, and a big production number did feature a skittish camel. But the sets from New Orleans Opera were terrific, such as the massive blue-gray visage of a god looming over the Temple of Isis, and Verdi's great score ultimately trumps any reservations.
And besides, Sunday afternoon was all about Coppola. A few favorite moments:
• During the triumphal scene, a wagon piled high with gold was wheeled out, and it was topped by a sign that read, "Grazie Maestro!" ("Will you forgive me for the sign?" Judy Lisi could be overheard asking Coppola backstage at intermission. Lisi, president of the Straz, and Coppola cofounded Opera Tampa.)
• After D'Imperio gave a remarkable performance of O patria mia, Aida's aria to her homeland, Coppola applauded the soprano from the podium.
• Before Act 4 began, the audience stood and cheered for the orchestra and Coppola, who gave concertmaster Nancy Chang a peck on the cheek.
At the end of the opera, there was another standing ovation as cast members came out to take their bows, and then D'Imperio ducked into the wings to bring out Coppola. At just over 5 feet, with silver hair, he has a distinctive, almost otherworldly presence — Yoda from Star Wars comes to mind — and it was touching to see this diminutive, frail figure set apart from everyone else on Morsani's vast stage, basking in the applause as orchestra players and choristers scattered red roses at his feet. Finally, he blew the crowd a kiss and the curtain came down.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.