There are many opera singers with voice and technique who can deliver reliable or even excellent performances. Then there are those exceptional performers who not only sing at a high level but who come to inhabit the character. We experience them not so much as actors playing a role, but as the characters themselves, so seamless and transparent their portrayal becomes. The Met's audience had an opportunity to witness two performers in this evening’s Aida whose artistry demonstrated that they are on their way to becoming legends in their respective roles: Anna Netrebko as Aida and Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris. 

Anna Netrebko (Aida) and Anita Rachvelishvili (Amneris)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Sonja Frisell's production dates back to 1988, and is grand in scale and traditional in approach. Act 1 takes place in an Egyptian palace as preparations are made for the war with Ethiopia. The most impressive is the transition in Act 2 from Amneris’ chamber to the city gates where victory celebrations take place. As the chamber descends, another platform loaded with the Egyptian populace slowly lowers from above. The Triumphal March, complete with the warrior Radamès’ horse-drawn chariot, showcases the mighty Met Chorus. In the Nile Scene the production scales down to a small area in front of a temple with painted backdrop of Memphis at night in the distance. Act 4 returns the action to the palace, as Radames and Aida perish in a sealed tomb which descends to reveal Amneris praying for peace above them. 

It is sometimes suggested that Verdi’s masterpiece should be entitled Amneris instead, as the Egyptian princess who is Aida’s love rival gets to sing one of the most dramatic scenes in the opera. Her anger, anguish and lament in the Judgement Scene can easily steal the show from the title character. Young Georgian mezzo Rachvelishvili is already experienced singing Amneris, and her performance here was nothing short of remarkable, rich and even throughout her range; she had a strong and attractive chest voice and yet was able to scale the heights of the role at the climax, her final note resonating with power. The Met Orchestra, conducted by Nicola Luisotti, accompanied with dynamic intensity to heighten the drama. 

Anita Rachvelishvili (Amneris) and Dmitry Belosselskiy (Ramfis)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Soprano Anna Netrebko remarked in a recent interview that, in her 20 years of opera career, Aida is the most challenging role. This is her second Aida, following her 2017 role debut in Salzburg. Netrebko demonstrated that her diligence and discipline in learning the role was paying off. Aida has two big and demanding arias, “Ritorna vincitor!” in Act 1 and “O patria mia” in Act 3. In between, she has to sing and dominate a huge ensemble in Act 2. Netrebko sang both arias with dramatic control and exquisite beauty. Each word, each phrase was expressive, her pianissimo prolonged and rising in an unbroken line to its peak.  She embodied the character with strong acting even when not singing. At her entrance her shoulders were lowered as she approached Amneris, her mistress. During Aida's confrontation with Amneris, Netrebko was on the floor, begging for mercy. She was expressive, in voice and movement, her conflicted loyalty to Amonasro, her father and Ethiopian King, apparent in the Nile Scene. Her portrayal is already a triumph. 

Quinn Kelsey (Amonasro) and Aida Netrebko (Aida)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Radamès' “Celeste Aida” comes right at the beginning of the opera, but the rest of his evening is spent in ensemble or in duet. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko did not sing with the legato and lyricism needed for the role, powerful and steely, apart from moments of soft tenderness in his final tomb duet. Quinn Kelsey, an American baritone who has many Verdi roles in his resume, made the best of his brief scenes in Acts 2 and 3 to make a strong impression as Amonasro, with intense and sympathetic singing. Two low voices, Dmitry Belosselskiy as Ramfis and Ryan Speedo Green as the King, were strong in voice and presence. Luisotti’s conducting was both fine grained and expansive. If his tempi were a little slow, especially towards the end, his conducting never lacked a sense of rhythm. The Met Orchestra played with stirring intensity, and the Chorus made an impressive contribution, singing as a unified force to support the soloists.

The evening, however, belonged, first and foremost, to Ms Netrebko, for yet another successful role debut at the Met following her Tosca last season. She met the audience’s high expectations, as she does every time, conquering the challenges with her remarkable artistry. Netrebko was well matched by her younger colleague, Ms Rachvelishvili. Their rivalry is resumed in Adriana Lecouvreur this winter.