Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Librettist: Antonio Ghislanzoni
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Producer/Director: Sonja Frisell
Aida: Anna Netrebko
Amneris: Anita Rachvelishvili
Radamès: Aleksandrs Antonenko
Quinn Kelsey: Amonasro
Ryan Speedo Green: Egyptian king
Sometimes the third time is the charm, and that’s what I was dearly hoping for when I bought my ticket for yet another go at Aida back last summer. After a lackluster first experience in Washington, D.C. eons ago and a humdrum one at the Met a couple of years ago, I was still waiting to hear Aida the way it is supposed to be heard. Luckily for me, this season the Met booked the world's premier soprano and indomitable force of nature Anna Netrebko, by all accounts the living opposite of lackluster and humdrum, which made me think that she could be not only the one breaking the curse, and also provide a resounding kick-off to my 2018-2019 Met season.
Even if Aida has enjoyed an enduring popularity since it first came out, it has never appealed to me the way other operas by Verdi have. But again, hearing the ill-fated love triangle fiercely battle it out amidst political conflicts is never all bad. And a lot of people, including the apparently entire Russian population of New York City, were obviously thinking the same thing as the Met’s opera house was literally packed to the rafters, including the standing room patrons who had to stand the whole time, on a (Gasp!) Tuesday night.
Originally commissioned for the opening of Cairo’s Royal Opera House, Aida was delayed by the Franco-Prussian War, but still eventually had its world premiere there in 1871. It is generally considered a good introduction to opera because the plot is easy to follow, the music is thrilling, and it is not overly long. Add to that the exotic setting of ancient Egypt, and you have a certified hit, especially when you have the right cast. And we sure came pretty damn close on Tuesday.
Over the past few years opera superstar Anna Netrebko has been mindfully moving away from the lighter roles that made her famous to venture successfully into (vocally and psychologically) darker territories. And sure enough, she whole-heartedly threw herself into the exciting new part of the deeply conflicted enslaved princess and delivered a fully controlled, dynamite performance that kept the happily enthralled audience on their toes the entire evening. Following her by now well-honed M.O., she made the most of her magnetic stage presence and her constantly evolving, more nuanced than ever, magnificent voice, and if her signature impossibly long, delectably voluptuous lines were not always crystal clear, they certainly unfolded gorgeously.
Her worthy rival was sensational Anita Rachvelishvili, who turned out to be a remarkably strong yet still achingly vulnerable Amneris. Making the thankless role of the ruthlessly scheming trouble-maker engaging is no small task, but the Georgian mezzo-soprano was totally up for it with a wonderfully wide-ranging and expressive voice, solid acting chops and plenty of charisma of her own. The confrontation scene between the two women was one of the highlights of the evening, bristling with tension and anxiety.
As military hero and romantic lead, Radamès was impersonated by tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, who, among other things, faced the daunting challenge of belting out one of opera’s most beloved arias a few minutes into the performance. His “Celeste Aida” went well, and he managed to hold more or less his own against the two fired-up ladies fighting for his attention. My main quibble is that while his singing had all the steady power required for the part, his lyrical side sometimes had trouble coming through.
The Met chorus was as fabulous as usual, especially in the Triumphal March scene, to which they vividly breathed much needed new life, and smaller but key roles such as Amonasro, Aida’s father, and the Egyptian king were more than capably filled by respectively baritone Quinn Kelsey and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green.
Sonja Frisell’s squarely old-fashioned production, featuring huge pharaoh’s statues, quiet sandy landscapes, bare-chested troops and fake tans, has been regularly used for the past three decades now, and although its indisputable grandeur makes up to some degree for its lack of inspiration, it is high time to retire it. Piling up a bunch of monumental set pieces and moving a lot of people on a stage may be visually arresting, but it takes more than that to make a production truly memorable. Even the much talked-about live horses of the victory parade made it clear that they could not wait to get out of there.
The Met orchestra musicians can probably play Verdi’s sumptuous score in their sleep by now, but they were nevertheless wide awake on Tuesday as conducted by Nicola Luisotti and gave it richly colorful reading. The arias had space and time to blossom, the dramatic moments came out truly genuinely gripping, and the pace was nicely kept (The final curtain dropped just 10 minutes after the scheduled time).
Bottom line is, Anna Netrebko and Anita Rachvelishvili made it all worth it, and all we need now is a new production for it