‘Aida’ features a memorable debut in Costa Mesa

Watching and listening to Kelebogile Besong perform the role of Aida, it was impossible for opera lovers not to think of Leontyne Price. On Thursday, the young South African soprano made her North American debut in the role at Segerstrom Concert Hall, and as her remarkable portrayal of Verdi’s ill-fated heroine unfolded, many in the audience probably had a second poignant thought: what a tragedy that Besong is only performing it three times.

Such are the frustrations of opera in Orange County these days. Since the demise of Opera Pacific in 2008, we have had to make do with Pacific Symphony’s brief once-a-year productions that commingle singers and orchestra on a tight stage with only the barest wisp of a set.

It’s far less than a performer of Besong’s caliber deserves. Only 28, she is already renowned for her interpretation of the doomed Nubian princess. Her gravitas, superb acting and deeply expressive voice distinguished a stark and riveting 2015 production of “Aida” at Sweden’s Malmö Opera.

Comparisons to Price are inevitable. She owned the role during her long and distinguished career, and Besong counts the American soprano among her biggest influences. But Besong’s Aida is no mere imitation. Her voice and acting create a perfect synergy that’s rare even among opera’s greatest performers.

We sense the weight of Aida’s tragic circumstances throughout Besong’s performance. At the beginning of the opera she kneels in the sand,…

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