The Glory of the Old Days
by

This season, the Metropolitan Opera has attracted a lot of attention with edgy productions of controversial modern operas like Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. But those nostalgic for the old Met—productions with sumptuous period sets, real ballet, and recognizable hit tunes—will find some relief in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda.

This production is not new—it premiered in 1988. But that’s a good thing. The gorgeous sets—designed by Gianni Quaranta (Academy Award winner for art direction, A Room With a View)—rival those of a 1950s big budget Hollywood epic. The gigantic statues and hieroglyph-filled interiors take up every corner of the Metropolitan Opera House’s huge stage. The monumental scope of Egyptian temple statuary comes off especially well, as the audience sees the bottom halves of giant figures while the top halves rise skyward into the rafters. Even the costumes and the props seem right out of an archeological dig. A reclining couch for Amneris in Act I, with its animal-head carving, mimics an artifact from Tutankhamen’s tomb. Supernumerary guards carrying golden-tipped spears stand frozen in profile as if they’d just stepped down from ancient Egyptian friezes. And the split stage elevator sets go up and down—sometimes carrying people and animals—allowing some scenes to be changed without bringing the curtain down. This is especially effective in the final scene. The split stage reveals the two lovers trapped in a burial vault beneath the temple altar, while above them princess Amneris intones prayers for their souls in the magnificent, incense-filled temple interior.

Not only the production design, but some of the direction is inspired as well. In fact, the scenes depicting religious rites and ceremonies steal the show. Lit in sepia tones, the interior of the temple to the god Phtah features a tiny glowing tabernacle on a high altar surrounded by handmaidens that look like exact copies of the protective goddesses surrounding King Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus. They move slowly in formal processions, or lower themselves silently to a seated recline, profile to the audience. Incense burns all around. These scenes—especially the final one—are treated with solemnity and reverence, providing some of the most moving moments in the opera.

The plot of Aïda revolves around a love triangle set against an ancient war. Egypt is invaded by Ethiopia, and Pharaoh anoints the warrior Radames to lead the Egyptians in battle. The Egyptians win and as a reward, Pharaoh offers Radames the hand of his daughter, Amneris, who is smitten with the victorious hero. But Radames doesn’t want the princess, he’s in love with her slave, Aïda. This sets up a rivalry that can only end badly. Aïda tricks Radames into revealing a military secret, he is discovered by Amneris, and sentenced to death by entombment. Aïda finds her way into the tomb before they seal it, and the two lovers die in each other’s arms.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for this intimate, tragic love story to get lost in the opera’s epic tour of ancient Egypt. Maybe that’s why Verdi saved some of his greatest hits for the arias revealing the inner most feelings of his doomed lovers. They include the famously difficult tenor aria, “Celeste Aida”; the soprano arias, “Ritorna vincitor” and “O patria mia”; and the lovers’ farewell duet, “O Terra Addio.” These arias are so well known, however, that any vocal issues are immediately apparent.

That’s especially true for the role of Radames. It is one of the most daunting in opera, because the tenor must come out and sing “Celeste Aida” at the beginning of Act I with only a few lines of dialogue as preparation. I heard the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani as Radames, captain of the Pharaoh’s palace guard. He is a well-known, solid professional who has performed many times at the Met. Despite being in his fifties, he can still hit those treacherous high notes (like the final B-flat in “Celeste Aida”), open up, and let it ring. But many times during the evening he seemed to be holding back, saving his voice for the big ones. And unfortunately, Giordano is a low-energy actor who could be seen clearing his throat, moistening his lips, and preparing for the next difficult vocal passage throughout most of the evening.

As the two rivals for the love of Radames, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina (Amneris, Pharaoh’s daughter) and Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska (Aïda, an Ethiopian slave) both gave strong vocal performances. Monastyrska in particular is gifted with a huge voice, but also has the vocal control to sustain the many beautiful pianissimo passages Verdi wrote for her character. At 38 years old, Monastyrska’s singing career in coming into full bloom and she has the dark good looks to credibly portray a voluptuous heroine. But her efforts couldn’t save the love story from being swallowed up by the grand processions, triumphal marches complete with horses, and gorgeous depictions of ceremonial rituals.

Two of the nicest surprises of the evening were the excellent bass voices cast for this production—Dmitry Belosselskiy (Ramfis, the High Priest) and Solomon Howard (Pharaoh, King of Egypt). I had previously seen Ukrainian bass Belosselskiy as the Old Convict in Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, and he was a standout. And 6’5″ tall Washington, D.C. native Howard—who once contemplated a career as a wide receiver in the NFL—was a strong and commanding King. Despite being encumbered with a 20-pound headdress, he had no problem projecting his thundering voice over the orchestra and the hundreds of people on stage in the triumphal scenes.

Aïda is grand opera, which wouldn’t be complete without a ballet. And thankfully, this production features a competent choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky (formerly Director of the Bolshoi and now artist in residence at the American Ballet Theater). His choreography for Aïda is fresh, interesting, and appropriate. Chains of dancers form concentric circles that move in opposition and weave patterns in and out of each other, interspersed by jumping and lifting couples. In Act II, there is a lovely moment at the end of the Pas de Deux when the two dancers—brought in to entertain the troubled princess—are summoned to her throne. The princess removes a ring from her finger and offers it to them as a token of appreciation, giving the dance a purpose in the story. In fact, all of the dances are well integrated into the plot, and performed with spirit and grace by the principals (Christine Hamilton and Bradley Shelver) and corps de ballet of the Metropolitan Opera.

Marco Armiliato led the Met orchestra, which had many fine moments. I especially enjoyed the scenes in which the brass section is placed on stage to proclaim the victory of the Pharaoh’s forces. The Met will be presenting nine more performances of Aïda, with various cast changes (check the website for the lineup). Notably, Plácido Domingo is scheduled to conduct the remaining performances of Aïda beginning April 9, 2015. He sang the role of Radameswhen this production opened at the Met in 1988. Renowned for his rapport with singers, perhaps Mr. Domingo can coax a bit more fire from the principals and bring into greater focus the tragic love story that inspired Verdi to write this iconic work.

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