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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Opera Review: The Princess Diaries

The singers trump the sets (for once) in the Met's latest Aida.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
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.
Since 1988, Sonja Frisell's over-the-top Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi's Aida has been a house favorite. Tourists and opera lovers flock to see the sandstone walls, white-and-gold costumes and spectacular depictions of Ancient Egypt, inspired by the Temple of Dendur at that other Met across town. But thanks to some questionable casting decisions in recent years, the show's big set pieces tend to supersede what is essentially an intimate drama against a huge backdrop.

All that changed Monday night with this current revival, boasting the talents of Liudmila Monastyrska in the title role. This run marks the Ukrainian soprano's house debut as the Ethiopian princess. For once, listeners could look forward to "Ritorno vincitar." The Act I monologue/aria was sung as intended, with a smooth legato and limpid tone that floated above the stilled orchestra.

Things got better from this encouraging start. Ms. Monastyrska won the audience in her Act II confrontation with Amneris even as her character sunk into self-pity. She sliced cleanly through the big ensembles in the Triumph Scene, underlining Aida's plight. Best of all was Act III, where she dominated the banks of the Nile. "O patria mia" presented with the climactic high notes sung, not shrilled.

Olga Borodina's Amneris remains formidable. She proved compelling from her Act I entrance with a regal presence and a rich, dusky tone. Her confrontations with Ms. Monastyrska came across as Verdi intended: a compelling contest between equals. Her Act IV monologue in the Trial Scene showed signs of wear and compression at the very top of the voice, but the diva recovered and finished strong.

As evidenced by the name "Marco Berti" in my Playbill, (and the fact that his name was glued onto the poster out front) the American tenor Carl Tanner was a late addition to the cast. The Virginia native, who worked as a truck driver and bounty hunter before turning to opera was a workmanlike Radames, with bold high notes and a macho stage presence. (Annoyingly, he followed "tradition" bawling the high Bat the end of "Celeste Aida." At least he hit it.) His best singing came in the Tomb Scene, a final duet and trio with the two leading ladies, displaying a sensitive voice, a welcome contrast to his earlier bluster.

The low voices did not fare well. Alberto Mastromarino's high-lying baritone was not a comfortable fit for Amonasro's Act II scena. He was much better in the Nile confrontation with his wayward daughter. Stefan Kocán was a wooly Ramfis, lacking the gravitas that can be a saving grace for the high Priest. Miklós Sebastyèn was impressive in the shorter role of the Pharoah. Perhaps the singers should trade off?

From the pianissmo opening bars, Fabio Luisi led a cerebral performance, filled with beautiful detail but lacking passion in the early acts. To his credit, the Met's principal conductor showed more interest in working with his singers, drawing favorable results from the stage even when one hoped for more fire from the orchestra pit. Ms. Frisell's well-worn production still looks handsome, although nobody knows what to do with the two Act II ballets.

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