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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Opera Review: New Blood for the Old Kingdom

The third cast is the charm for the Met's long-running Aida.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Radàmes (Jorge de Léon, left) and Aida (Krassmira Stoyanova) in Act III of Aida
at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo by Marty Sohl © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
Old-time opera goers love the Metropolitan Opera's Aida, for Verdi's sublime melodies and for the big, martial choruses. Tourists, who have opted for this Met's Egyptian experience over the Temple of Dendur uptown, love it for the "sandstone" sets and elaborate Egyptian palaces, adorned with heiroglyphics, and the real horses in Act II. The show balances '80s excess with economical stage design and has played successfully for almost thirty years. It is always spectacular. But at the Met, Aida isn't always...ya know, good.



The current cast (they arrived last Thursday and were een by this writer on Monday night) are out to disprove that. Led by the energetic young conductor Daniele Rustioni, thsis was an Aida to remember, with a strong cast that cannily mixed a new generation of singers with veterans, producing a performance that never let the grand spectacle chorus, orchestra, props, horses and sphinxes overwhelm the intimate drama that is at the core of this opera. Indeed, the triangle between Aida, Radamès and the Pharoah's daughter Amneris crackled and drove the plot forward, aided by Mr. Rustioni's urgent work in the pit.

The good stuff started in Act I. Mr. de Léon, who is, like Mr. Rustioni making his house debut with this run of performances. In the sometimes uncomfortable role of Radamès, he stepped forward to deliver a bright, but lyrical "Celeste Aida", marred only by a well-sung but unnecessarily long fortissimo final note. (Then again, very few tenors sing this note with the correct dynamic marking.) It was the start of an impressive evening that improved as the evening progressed, making himself heard in the big Act II sextet and having the sweetness to sing the "O terra addio" duet at the close.

When singing the role of Aida, it is the Act I monologue "Ritorna vincitor" that can make or break the entire evening. Soprano Krassmira Stoyanova displayed flair in this complex character piece, at one point singing the high "Numi pieta" with superb control and at another, pulling a note into a sharp inhalation of breath that conveyed the character's uncertainty. She was even better in the reprise of this aria that follows her confrontation with Amneris in the second act, conveying heartbreak through gesture as well as voice.

The Nile Scene is the second great challenge. Her "O patria mia" was warm and entirely serviceable, with the languid conducting of Mr. Rustioni giving her a firm, woven footing to sing over. The duets with Amonasro (her father) and Radamès grew even better, with invigorating singing bringing much needed life to this sometimes dull stretch of the opera. Ms. Stoyanova and Mr. de Léon were utterly convincing in the Act IV finale, sinking slowly into oblivion as the stage set descended. Not even a scenery glitch in this act could destroy the momentum of this performance.

Violeta Urmana, who sang a very shaky Aida at the Met eight years ago, is a much more successful Amneris. The fiery nature of this spoiled character seemed to suit her. She sounded flinty and tentative in the Act I trio but found the character's core in Act II. She seemed to take genuine delight in the sadistic Act II scene where Amneris discovers that Aida is her rival, and summoned genuine Verdian fury for the famous monologue when she rails against the priests' decision to have Radamès executed.

Amonasro enters late in the second act: the Ethiopian king who also happens to be Aida's father. George Gagnidze brought wild-eyed energy to the part, inserting Scarpia-esque frenzy into a role that can be dull in its nobility. He was very good in the third act, particularly in the trio with Mr. de Léon and Ms. Stoyanova. The ageless James Morris sounded desert-dry in the opening scene, but his voice found what is left of its bloom in the Act I temple scene as he sang "Mortal, diletto ai Numi." Much better was bass Morris Robinson, an imposing presence who brought gravity and yes, warmth to the brief and bombastic role of the Pharoah. He should sing Ramfis next time. 

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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.