OPERA REVIEW Metropolitan’s Production of Aida Refreshing

A Revival of an Old Favorite

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Carlo Guelfi plays Amonasro, and Violeta Urmana plays the title role in Verdi’s Aida.
Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera


Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY

October 12, 2009

The audience at the Metropolitan Opera was surely as dramatic as the performers on stage. Despite booing conductor Daniele Gatti for what it considered a lackluster performance of Verdi’s Aida, the audience seemed quite content with a repeated performance a little over a week later.

Apparently, following the opening night performance of the Met’s revival of Aida, singers were greeted with ovations and cheers while Gatti, the conductor, had to stomach significant boos. The logic behind this is slightly baffling since the conductor, in no small way, is in charge of the singers. Nonetheless, after the performance I attended a little over a week later, the audience seemed generally pleased.

The performance was the revival of a 1988 production done by stage director Sonja Frisell that has proven to be reliable over the years. It envisions Aida at its most grand and traditional, depicting ancient Egypt as imposing and exotic, but doing so without overpowering the performers, as grand sets are wont to do (as those designed under Zeffirelli’s direction). All the ingredients of grand opera were there: large sets, intricate costumes, and a dash of risk to enthrall the audience.

That risk came in the form of horses trotting across stage and performers as Egyptian soldiers standing, without any safety harnesses, on top of a wall that slowly lowered from the top of a stage to reveal a dazzling set.

Yet the production sought more than mere spectacle: It aimed to enhance the music. A particular instance that comes to mind occurred during the triumphant march, when captives were carted across stage amid victorious music to remind us of the ugliness of war. This mixture of extravagance and gravitas made the experience feel truly memorable.

The singers impressed the audience with the sheer beauty of their voices, but perhaps not with their versatility. The tenor Johan Botha, in the lead male role of Radamès, stole the show in the first act with his opening aria, “Celeste Aida,” in which he sung with out-of-this-world sounds, reverberating to every corner of the 3,800 person hall. But as the opera progressed and one grew accustomed to his voice, one wanted more from him, and he soon paled in dimensionality as he stood in contrast to the leading ladies.

Both the leading ladies, soprano Violeta Urmana as Aida and mezzo-soprano Dolores Zajick as Amneris, dominated in the beginning and flourished as the opera grew in emotional complexity. Urmana’s Aida, through the masterful control of her round voice, impressively conveyed the psychological torment involved in staying true to one’s kingdom while remaining hopelessly in love with the army general of an opposing state. Zajick, in the supporting role of Amneris, wrought a woman of nearly equal complexity through dramatic precision, one whose jealousy is buttressed by a tender and equally hopeless love.

Gatti’s conducting fittingly remained on the subtler side, so as to not cheapen an opera that is essentially an exploration of the conflict between public duty and private passions. His style was marked by sensitivity and attentiveness to the natural tendencies of each singer. The audience certainly had no problems him this time since he received as much applause, if not more, as the singers.

The Met has been facing a fickle audience recently, starting with this year’s season opener, a new production of Puccini’s Tosca. Realized as stark and kinky, the production understandably drew boos and catcalls so adamant that the performers decided to receive the response from a side balcony.

But perhaps these are the markings of a new Met, one that general manager Peter Gelb is working hard to achieve. Pushing boundaries with new faces, rarely staged works, and radical productions of storied favorites, Gelb will undoubtedly turn away some longtime Metgoers. And the tradeoff? The changes make the Met something worth discussing.