The Metropolitan Opera is set to retire its 1988 production of Aida by Sonja Frisell after this season to make way for a new one in a season or two. A literal presentation of the story of a love triangle in Ancient Egypt with its chunky sets of the royal palace, temple and the Nile has served well as a crowd-pleaser for three decades. This past fall’s revival featured exciting first rate singing by Anna Netrebko and Anita Rachvelishvili whose sizzling vocal fireworks were more than enough to overlook the cluttered staging and minimal direction of singers. At this first performance of 2019, veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick, who first sang Amneris in this production in 1989, carried the performance almost single-handedly, with workmanlike but solid supporting singers. American soprano Kristin Lewis, making her Met debut in the title role, failed to deliver a consistent and secure performance.

Ms Lewis’ singing was puzzling at first. While she has a beautiful lyric voice, she often did not project it, and tended to swallow her words. She fared better in the higher range, but even here the transition from chest tone to head voice tended to be awkward and abrupt. Her voice disappeared in the large ensemble scene at the end of Act 2. She has a lovely stage presence and chose to play Aida as an impetuous and strong character. Her singing improved throughout the evening, and she sang a respectable “O patria mia”, but even here, her pianissimo did not quite float or spin. Perhaps the biggest obstacle for her success was that despite her beauty in voice and presence, she lacked the vocal charisma and magnetism of a diva.

Tenor Yonghoon Lee, singing Radamès, was solid and tireless all evening, his voice ringing out with power and sheen. He tended to go for volume, and some of his phrasing was blunt. He did manage softer singing in tender moments, with effortless mezza voce. His acting was minimal as he mostly stood and sang, but he cut a dashing figure of an ambitious warrior torn between love and loyalty. Special mention should be made of the bass Soloman Howard, who sang the brief role of the King with authority and clarity; his voice carried well and audible in ensemble scenes. Tenor Kevin Ray, replacing Arseny Yakovlev in his Met debut as the Messenger, made a strong impression with his focused and clear voice delivering the message of war. Veteran Roberto Frontali was an unusually tender Amonasro, Aida’s father and Ethiopian King, who showed off his strength as a seasoned Verdi baritone with his light but nuanced voice and smooth legato.

A relatively young but versatile Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow stood out in the role of the high priest Ramfis from his very first utterance as the curtain opened. He has a mellow and velvety voice that blooms above the orchestra with deceptive ease; his phrasing was elegant and noble, with a hint of his iconic Wotan. Throughout the performance, conductor Nicola Luisotti took care to support the singers, controlling the orchestral volume and tempo. One could have wished for a little more variation in phrasing and emphasis, but Luisotti managed to convey the genius of Verdi’s work while giving center stage to the singers. 

Dolora Zajick’s remarkable career as the leading Verdi mezzo at the Met and elsewhere spanning over 30 years, may be coming closer to the end. Her high notes are no longer as powerful or rich as they used to be; there was some weakness in her chest voice early in the performance. But from Act 2 on, Zajick dominated the performance with conviction and courage. It was remarkable how her voice has remained undamaged over the years. While it was shrill at times in the top range, the voice still soared high to end the Judgement Scene with thrilling force. Above all, she still had an ability to produce endless legato while varying her dynamics from forte to piano. She was my first Amneris at the Met (1989), and the ovation at the end of the Judgement Scene at that time went on and on after she exited the stage. Last evening, the applause was shorter and less enthusiastic; but it was still the loudest and longest one of this rather lackluster performance.