Verdi’s Aida has been performed over 1,000 times at the Metropolitan Opera, making it the most commonly revived work after Puccini’s La bohème. Because Aida is so regularly programmed, I usually walk rather than run to see this opera. In fact, I’ll confess: I haven’t seen Aida since late October 2004 and I hadn’t seen the Met’s production until this Thursday. My passion for Verdi has been renewed, however, by the Met’s recent revival of Macbeth, starring Željko Lučić in the title role and Anna Netrebko as his wicked wife. So really, a passionate afternoon with Lady Macbeth is what convinced me to call up Aida for a long-overdue date.
Mezzo soprano Olga Borodina, as jealous princess Amneris, was the most exciting performer in the current cast of the Met’s Aida. Borodina, with her lush tone and commanding dramatic presence, was not only my favorite performer during Thursday’s performance. She, like Netrebko in Macbeth, has made me more interested in revisiting canonic works by Verdi more frequently. Especially exquisite was Borodina’s performance of the Act IV duet “Già i sacerdoti adunansi” (Already the priests assemble), since her mellow mezzo-soprano blended perfectly with the clarinet obbligato. Borodina was arresting in her Act II scene, “Fu la sorte dell'armi a' tuoi funesta"(The battle's fate was fatal for your people), when she confronts Aida, her slave, about her relationship with Radamès, whom she also loves.
Željko Lučić, as Aida’s father Amonasro, was also vocally and dramatically striking. Lučić was particularly strong in Act III, when Amonasro reminds Aida that her duty is to the Ethiopian people, not her lover Radamès, their Egyptian enemy. After Aida repeatedly asks for pity, he berates her and shouts, “Non sei mia figlia/ Dei Farraoni tu sei la schiava” (You are not my daughter, you are the slave of the Pharaohs); Lučić was truly terrifying here.
Less impressive was Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title role. In scenes like the aforementioned, she brought vocal beauty but not dramatic intensity, making it hard for me to sympathize with her character. Vocally, Monastyrska’s performance was inconsistent. Her extended solo scene in Act I, “Ritorna vincitor”, was a bit shaky, but, she brought her A game later in “O patria mia”, offering floating high notes and the most gentle pianissimi.
I was embarrassed that Monastyrska, who looks rather like Snow White in her headshot, was forced to wear black-face to portray the Ethiopian princess. In 2014 in America, where black-face has such a sensitive history, it’s remarkable that this is still considered acceptable even in seemingly “benign” instances. Perhaps Monastyrksa would have been more dramatically convincing if she were not painted up. Not only would it have been offensive to many, it looked bad. Instead of appearing like an Ethiopian princess, she seemed rather like a denizen of the Jersey shore who has spent too many hours in the tanning bed. That look doesn’t flatter anyone.
Marcello Giordani's Radamès was excellent, despite a slightly rough start in his first aria “Celeste Aida”. His portamento was a little loose to the point of sounding sloppy. Also, he and the conductor seemed to have slightly different ideas about the tempo; Giordani seemed to want to push things along a couple of clicks faster on the metronome than the maestro. But, he was in better voice during the rest of the evening.
Of course, an opera like Aida has much more to offer than wonderful singing. The Met’s production is, indeed, spectacular. The most beautiful moments were in Act I, Scene 2. Here, Verdi presents some of the most “exotic” music in the whole opera, since there’s otherwise not much about the score that is particularly “Egyptian” in its sound. The hypnotic chorus “Possente Ftha”, combined with the overall mise-en-scène, transported me, at least for a few seconds, to the banks of the Nile.
The spectacle in Act II, Scene 2, though extraordinary, reminded the entire audience that they were, of course, in New York. One of the four on stage horses present during the scene was obviously irritated during its quick cameo, sending chuckles throughout the entire house. Though spectacle can be an important part of opera, I felt sorry for the performers and technical staff that a horse was upstaging all of their hard work. But, you know what they say about animals and children...
Aida, I’m sorry it’s been so long. Our recent date reminded me of why people adore you so. It’s just there’s so many other girls out there: Agrippina, Alcina, Armida… and those are just the As! But, I’m convinced that it won’t be another decade until we meet again.
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