By ( | First Posted: Nov 24, 2012 03:37 PM EST

Liudmyla Monastyrska as the title character and Olga Borodina as Amneris in Verdi's "Aida."
Taken during a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on November 15, 2012 (Photo : Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera )

Verdi's Aida is one of the indisputable staples of the operatic repertoire thanks to its combination of endless melodic invention, spectacular musical and visual pageantry, and a powerful drama relating the difficulty between the personal needs and public duties of its central characters. Every great opera house presents the work, but a truly riveting and refreshing performance of the work is often hard to find as putting together all the aforementioned elements is a tremendous feat. The Metropolitan Opera did just that on Friday November 23 in a performance that populated its riveting production with equally engaging singers.

Sonja Frisell's production has been deemed untouchable Met Manager Peter Gelb and it is easy to see why. The massive sets hint at the architecture of ancient Egypt in all its splendor, but they are never overly indulgent in their design as to distract from the action on stage. The Act One throne room is made up of beige marble and showcases hieroglyphic writing on the walls. The massive choral scene at the end of Act 2 showcases a temple on stage right where all the priests are assembled while another platform on stage left features the royal family. The center of the set is barren but provides space for the procession (which showcases horses) and ballet. The Act 4 Court scene portrays an entrance way all the way upstage with a pair of columns dominating the foreground on both sides of the stage. The set for the Nile River scene is rather small compared to the other scenes, but it places a greater emphasis on the singers, who often look small in the more massive sets. The final scene features a faithful representation of the split stage as Verdi originally intended. On the bottom of the stage is the tomb where Aida and Radames are to die while the top features a representation of Vulcan's temple seen at the end of Act one during which Radames is consecrated. Stage Director Stephen Pickover did not impose any new reading of the production and did a solid job of keeping the principal singers in focus on the large set.

Liudmyla Monastyrska had a triumphant debut in the title role, providing a deeply moving portrayal of the suffering heroine. Her voice has heft and potency that rang viscerally through the massive choruses in Acts one and two, but it has an exquisite delicacy that was perfectly suited to Verdi's sweeping lines. Nowhere was this more evident than in Aida's famous aria "Ritorna Vincitor" during which her internal conflict between her love for the Egyptian general Radames and her native Ethiopia is put on display. During the sublime "Numi Pieta" Monastyrska started the phrase with a very gentle color, almost mezza voce, and slowly built up a thrilling crescendo to the climactic A flat. Aida gets two chances to sing this phrase and both times, Monastyrska delivered heart wrenching renditions. During her "O Patria Mia" in which Aida ponders whether she will ever see her home again, Monastyrska brought a similar gentleness to her phrasing. As she rose toward the high C near the end of the aria, she built a lengthy crescendo, but then delivered the C as a disembodied pianissimo that made the moment sublime.

As Radames, Carl Tanner had a solid performance stepping in for an ailing Marco Berti on short notice. He has a hard-edged and raw voice which has a great deal of heft but feels lacking in vibrancy in his middle and lower ranges. Tanner generally relied on his power throughout the night and rarely imbued Verdi's expansive phrases with a fluid and elegant legato. This was evident in the "Celeste Aida" where the ascending lines with which the aria initiates felt a bit pushed (though to his credit most tenors struggle here due to the fact that they barely get any time to warm up their voices before launching into this difficult aria). He was also unable to match Monastyrka's tender pianissimo phrasing of the final duet "O Terra Addio." However, he brought something that many other tenors struggle with in this role: gleaming high notes. From the outset Verdi tells us that the tessitura of Radames will sit in the tenor's upper register. He has three high B flats in the opening "Celeste Aida" and will be asked to sing a number of other high notes over massive ensembles and during duets and trios. Every single time the score called for a high note, Tanner delivered with assurance and a vibrant sound; they never sounded pushed or uncomfortable at any juncture in the evening. Overall, Tanner delivered under the circumstances of short notice and likely no rehearsal time.

Olga Borodina brought a complex portrayal to the Egyptian Princess Amneris. At the outset, her Amneris came off as a willful woman who thinks that her power and beauty alone can get her what she wants. During her initial encounter with Radames during which she asks him if he might not want something more tender than to be the commanding officer for the upcoming war, Borodina slowly moved toward Radames with a calculated step that gave off a seductive air. However, her cool manner gave way to a more threatening one, particularly at the start of the ensuing trio during which she begins to suspect the love between Radames and Aida. As she asked Aida to reveal the secret of her sorrows ("svela il segreto a me") the mezzo soprano is asked to descend into the lower end of her voice. Borodina used this to her advantage and sang the phrase with a startling potent sound that almost made it seem as if Amneris were trying to coerce Aida into telling her what she wants to know. It made Aida's desperate response all the more believable. During the famous Aida-Amneris confrontation in Act 2, her powerful voice provided a tremendous counterpoint to Monastyrka's suave approach. When Monastyrska resorted to using her full volume, it seemed to bring out even more from Borodina and turned the scene into an impressive battle of wills as each singer seemed to find more vocal resources with which to snap back at each other. But her Amneris was not simply brutality. At the start of Act 3, Verdi gives Amneris her most poignant moment in which she says she will pray that the gods bless her in her upcoming marriage to Radames. Verdi scholar Jullian Budden has stated that a great Amneris can steal the audience's sympathies away from Aida if she is able to render this passage sublimely. Whether or not Borodina achieved this on Friday is irrelevant, but the purity of her vocal delivery proved a major turning point for her portrayal of Amneris as it showcased the dignity of the character in a brief but touching moment. In Act 4, Borodina's Amneris underwent a tragic unraveling. As she came on stage to start Act 4, she brought back her powerful voice to curse the betrayal against her, but she soon reverted to pleading during her ensuing duet with Radames. Verdi pushes Amneris to her limits vocally in this scene with a pair of B flats near the end of the duet in addition to a number of other dramatically place high notes. Borodina turned these moments into heartbreaking pleas that highlighted the desperation of the character. Her final "Pace, t'imploro" at the end of the opera was sung with an ethereal pianissimo that brought Amneris' tragedy to a sorrowful conclusion.

Alberto Mastromarino brought nuance to the role of Amonasro. His voice has a rugged timbre and he relished in using it to imbue Amonasro with a dignified cruelty. His big moment in the Act 3 duet with Aida was a show stopper as he thundered menacingly through the cacophonous orchestra with rhythmic prowess and a number of effective accents in the text. At the end of the passage, Amonasro gets one of Verdi's trademark parola scenica in which he tells Aida that she is not his daughter; she is the pharoah's slave ("Non sei mia figlia, dei Faraoni, tu sei la schiava"). Mastromarino held the climactic G flat for such a long time, that it added an inevitable dramatic weight to the ending of the phrase. But his Amonasro was not simply a vengeful ruler. As Aida begged him to forgive her moments later he ran upstage with his back turned to her. As she uttered the words "Pieta" he put up his hand hoping to stop her, but as she continued pleading with her, he started slowly turning to her; the rage all washed away. He walked slowly toward her and delivered the "Pensa che un popolo" passage with intense vulnerability that made it sound as if he were on the verge of breaking down emotionally beside his daughter. His comforting of Aida as the duet came to a close felt sincere and added tension to Aida's internal plight.

Stefan Kocan brought an imposing bass to the role of Ramfis. Miklós Sebestyén had a fine debut as the King with a vibrant timbre. The Met Opera Chorus was an imposing presence throughout the work's numerous ensembles.

Conductor Fabio Luisi is never one to shy away from quick tempi, all of which were on display Friday night. The lightness of the tempi added a propulsive pace to Verdi's score, making for a greater sense of contrast with some of the slower moments in the work. One notable section was during Aida's first aria "Ritorna Vincitor." During the section where Aida sings "I sacri nomi di padre, d'amante" the orchestra has an incessant triplet accompaniment in the strings. The quick tempi brought out the desperation in Monastyrska's voice more poignantly and added a great deal of more dramatic counterpoint to the ensuing and slower "Numi Pieta" section. For the most part, the tempi seemed to suit the singers well, but there were a few moments where it seemed to have overwhelmed them. During the "cabaletta" section of Act 3 duet between Aida and Radames, both singers seemed slightly uncomfortable with Luisi's lightning speed, though they managed to get through it rather unscathed. In the Act 4 duet, Tanner and Borodina seemed to speed ahead of Luisi momentarily and the conductor had to slow down slightly to accommodate them. Structurally, Luisi tended toward faster tempi in the first half of the work, while slackening the pace in the more intimate and expansive second half.

Another quality that Luisi brings is a strong level of control and polished detail to his interpretations. Aida is laden with a great deal of brass and it is easy for some conductors to overemphasize these instruments to bring volume and brightness to the sonority of the group; however, this often detriments the orchestral balance. Luisi always kept his brass instruments in check and well integrated with the rest of the group. During Aida's Act 3 entrance, Verdi accompanies her melody with running sixteenths in the lower strings. Luisi's emphasis on the sixteenths gave them clarity and the impression of the Nile's incessantly running river. More importantly, he never overpowered the winds during this section, creating an exhilarating musical moment.

Aida is among Verdi's greatest achievements and well executed by a strong production and powerful cast, it presents one of the most riveting theatrical experiences possible. The Metropolitan Opera succeeded on all fronts in Friday's premiere, making for one of the most remarkable performances of the season to date.

Other Opera Reviews By David Salazar

La Clemenza di Tito

The Tempest (November 7,2012)

Le Nozze Di Figaro (October 26, 2012)

Il Trovatore (October 17, 2012)

Otello (October 16, 2012)

L'Elisir D'Amore (October 5, 2012)

Carmen (September 28, 2012)

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