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Friday, August 29, 2014

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Aida

The Met goes back to Egypt in search of box office gold.
Tomb raiders: Aida (Liudmila Monastyrska, l.) emotes as Amneris (Olga Boridina) glowers in the Met's
latest revival of Verdi's Aida. Photo by Marty Sohl © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.

Aida is an opera that people see for the spectacle, and for the grand illusion of Egypt that is conjured by Verdi's imaginative use of the orchestra and martial themes. It is also an intimate love story set against this grand backdrop, with two girls (who both happen to be princesses) in love with the same guy.

Since 1988, Sonja Frisell's massive production of Verdi's Aida has been a house favorite. Tourists and opera lovers alike ooh and ahh over the Cyclopean sandstone walls, white-and-gold costumes and spectacular depiction of Ancient Egypt, inspired by the Temple of Dendur at that other Met across town. But the show's big set pieces (the temple scene, the Triumphal March) threaten to supersede what is essentially an intimate drama.

Two years after they last paired on the Met stage, Liudmyla Monastyrska and Olga Borodina reunite as Aida and Amneris, the two princesses whose passion for the heroic Egyptian general Radames ends with fatal consequences. Marcello Giordani is Radames in this revival. and Serbian baritone Željko Lucic is Aida's father Amonasro, the leader of the opposing army. Marco Armiliato conducts.

Aida returns to the Met stage Oct. 30.

Recording Recommendations:

Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Jonel Perlea (RCA 1955)
Aida: Zinka Milanov
Amneris: Gulietta Simionato
Radames: Jussi Björling
Amonasro: Leonard Warren
Ramfis: Boris Christoff

An early studio Aida, featuring the wonderful pairing of Zinka Milanov and Jussi Björling as Aida and Radames. The mono sound doesn't have the same "wide-screen" effect as more modern recordings of this opera, and the current transfer is marred by audible hiss (especially in the Grand Consecration scene.) However, the singing (especially Björling's stunning "Celeste Aida" and Milanov's "O Patria Mia" with that famous, floated final note) makes this a compelling entry.

But wait--there's more. The set features the late Leonard Warren as Amonasro and Boris Christoff as a wonderfully scary (if not very Italianate) Ramfis. Issued on RCA, this set is also available from Naxos as an import.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (Decca, 1959)

Aida: Renata Tebaldi
Amneris: Gulietta Simionato
Radames: Carlo Bergonzi
Amonasro: Cornell MacNeill
Ramfis: Arnold van Mill

This was the first stereo recording of Aida. It's still the best. Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi are perfectly matched as the lovers. Karajan was at a peak with his Vienna forces, and although he recorded the opera again for EMI, that set was hurt by a cast which could not hold up against the orchestral assault of the Karajan Sound. Tebaldi is a marvelous Aida, singing with passion and intelligence.

Bergonzi shows why he was one of the finest tenors of the 20th century.This recording is a fascinating early example of Decca producer John Culshaw's "SonicStage" technique, with tiny aural enhancements added to create a virtual operatic experience.The tiny echoes (audible when Radames and Aida are trapped in the tomb) are chilling in their simplicity.

Tickets for Aida are available at MetOperaFamily.Org, by calling (212) 362-6000, or at the box office.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.