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Friday, January 27, 2012

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Aida

The Met brings back a fan (and tourist) favorite.
Rush hour in Thebes: The Triumph from Act II of Aida.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.
Seeing the Met's grandiose Sonja Frisell staging of Aida for the first time is like a walk through the Temple of Dendur without some guy nearby doing his Billy Crystal impression from When Harry Met Sally. In fact, sometimes you're so blown away by the too-big-for-the-stage statuary, heiroglyphs and elevator-powered sets that you forget about the singers.

Marcelo Álvarez will do his best to convince as Radames, the love-struck Egyptian general whose secret girlfriend (Violeta Urmana) happens to be a captured Ethiopian princess, and the opera's title character. Ms. Urmana's Aida will battle Amneris, the Pharoah's daughter, played by the formidable mezzo Stephanie Blythe.

The cast also features baritone Lado Atapeli as Aida's father Amonasro, and former king of the gods James Morris, serving them as the priest, Ramfis. Plus a whole lot of choristers in bald caps, loin cloths, and other Egyptian business. Marco Armiliato conducts.

This is a classy production with the Egyptians in white robes, the Ethiopians in appropriate jasper-like earth tones and everyone onstage in the second act (including the trumpeters) for the Triumphal March. It's been updated a few times, most recently with new ballet sequences (by Alexei Ratmanksy) for Act II. But the real triumph is for Local 1, the union for the Met's stagehands.

Recording Recommendations:
Considering its popularity, Aida has had bad luck on record. The safest recommendation is:

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (Decca, 1959)
Aida: Renata Tebaldi
Amneris: Gulietta Simionato
Radames: Carlo Bergonzi
Amonasro: Cornell MacNeill
Ramfis: Arnold van Mill

There's a reason this recording, now 52 years old, is still in print.

Renata Tebaldi is everything an Aida should be, creamy of tone, filled with pathos, and able to cut through the (delicious) sachertorte of the superb Vienna Philharmonic. She is well-matched with Carlo Bergonzi, whose macho swagger and vocal stylings inspired Plácido Domingo's acclaimed interpretation. This is a collaboration between von Karajan, the singers, and producer John Culshaw, developer of the Decca SonicStage technology. And it has that moment where the air "cuts off" as the lovers are entombed.

Remastered properly in 2007, it still kicks the butt of every recording that followed.
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