Hurrah, at last, at last! That was the sort of general sentiment expressed by the opera populace around me at the HD movie transmission of Verdi’s opera Aida. The relief expressed was that we were not seeing a watered-down, ultra-modernized version of this great favorite. Lately the Met has given us a lot of such transposed productions.
I could imagine that the jaded audience might fear that the famous “Triumphal March” would be a ticker-tape parade and the tomb scene have the lovers overcome by carbon monoxide in a coal cellar!
Well, instead we were exposed to the grandiose Sonja Frisell production first seen in 1988. And it has all the opulent, spectacular, over-the-top features Aida deserves. With its estimated 150 supers, (enumerated and shown rehearsing during intermission,) plus the entire Met chorus and ballet corps, the stage was literally filled to the ingeniously “authentic”, ancient-Egyptian gills. The triumphal scene had all the needed accoutrements, including horses and ponies, wagons and the hero, Radames’ golden chariot.
It was grand, as grand as “grand” opera gets. And we all lapped it up! And for good reason – not just for the spectacular physical production – but the very satisfying musical rendition.
Special praise must be given to the Aida, Liudmyla Monastyrska of Kiev, Ukraine, a spinto soprano, blessed with a lovely vocal instrument. She sang with great sensitivity and simply gorgeous pianissimi. Her intermission interview, (hosted by the diva, Renee Fleming, complete with a translator,) explained that she, a Met newcomer, had performed this role in London, with Fabio Luisi, who also conducted this production.
(Incidentally, after exposing us to the impressive assembling of the massive, authentic-appearing Egyptian scenery, one intermission feature took us to the archives division of the Met. We were shown some of the treasures of its past 1128 Aidas. Absolutely fascinating!)
For me, the performance of Russian Olga Borodina was a pleasant surprise. She absolutely owns the part of Aida’s rival for the love of Radames. I have seen/heard her Amneris before, and never cared for her stilted, wooden rendition. But this performance of the proud, crafty princess was somehow different and vocally quite splendid.
Aida’s royal father, Amonasro, was sung magnificently by George Gagnidze, and the role of the cruel high priest, Ramfis, performed with appropriate icy sonority by basso Stefan Kocan. The tenor Roberto Alagna made a comely Radames, but lacked the fervor and brilliance of some of his predecessors of the famous role.
As usual the chorus and the Met’s world-class orchestra were simply glorious. They must all be able to perform this so-often-staged opera half asleep. Yet, they obviously maintain their professional enthusiasm and give it their all every time. We are the lucky beneficiaries.
Modern man knows little about what music sounded like in ancient Egypt, (approximately 3500 BC to 350 AD,) so Verdi, (1813-1901 to offer some perspective,) gives us an array of typical Italian Romanticism mixed in with exotic sounding melodies we readily accept. As a matter of fact the melodies are all so memorable, upon second hearing or so, they are etched in our consciousness. This is probably one of the major reasons Aida is such a great favorite the world over.
With all the over-the-top crowd scenes mentioned, basically this is the woeful story of three characters, involving loyalty, jealousy, patriotism, treason, but most importantly: love, portrayed by some of the most beautiful music ever composed. I won’t go into the story. You all know it anyway!
But maybe here are some facts you don’t know about: Contrary to popular miss-information, (and that even includes “The Metropolitan Opera Guide” published in 1939,) Aida was not commissioned for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It is not even clear as to whether a Khedive of Egypt wanted to celebrate the opening of a museum or the Cairo opera house. The latter was opened with Rigoletto in 1869.
We do know that Verdi did not relish composing the work but was said to have accepted it “for the money.” He drove a very hard bargain, stating later that Aida was his favorite achievement because it earned him the most of all his commissions. Evidently he was paid 150,000 franks, roughly $30,000, starting the work in 1859. (By 1939 comparison, that would be about $200,000. I leave it to you to figure out what that would be now. Obviously it would be astronomical!)
Just another word of gratitude for the advent of the HD performances so easily available for us in Westchester: We got extras. I arrived early with lots of others in the non- reserved-seats theatre. The sold-out house had all the audience in seats at least an hour before the start. This is unheard of. It’s the power of Aida! But we were entertained with specially marked “Test Material Only” scenes from Eugene Onegin, The Barber of Seville and The First Emperor. Very entertaining to say the least!
Obviously attending the HD’s is a wonderful investment all around…
Catch the encore of Aida at WP’s City Center Cinema 15 and NewRoc’s City 18, at 6:30 PM on January 16th 2013.
Here are comments from some of your neighbors:
Lorna Adler of Valhalla enthusiastically exclaimed: “Aida is tops with me.” She especially praised Verdi’s way he composed for the chorus. Although she was unimpressed by the acting in this performance, she singled out Liudmyla Monastyrska, saying, “she had such a dramatic quality to her singing, it sent chills down my spine.”
Lois Seulowitz of Sleepy Hollow, has been attending the HD’s for the past three years, considers them a “great gift” and believes we all should support the Met for offering them. She thought this performance “magnificent” especially praising Monaststyrska “with her wonderful spinto voice.”
Ruth Gundell of White Plains thought the two female singers gave wonderful performances; was less impressed by the males for their lack of emotion. She admitted to being bothered by the length of the dance sequences and the tomb scene. “Frankly, I got antsy, and was ready to leave.”
Seymour Rosen of Valhalla, turned out to be on a sort of retired-busman’s-holiday since he was the Managing Director of Carnegie Hall from1981-1986. At other times he held the same position with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. None of this tied him to opera, except his great appreciation of the form. He has been attending the HD’s for the past three years, remarking: “That’s one of the good things Gelb is doing.” He praised Borodina as “good” and Gagnidze as “excellent” in this performance.
Betty Wong Tomita of Scarsdale saw her first Aida in 1964! Extremely knowledgeable, she has been attending the HDs since their inception 7 seasons ago. Praising Monastyrska’s incredible voice, she admired the way she “soared out over everyone as well as the orchestra. She could use a few acting lessons, but she is young and has a great career ahead of her.”