Monday’s production of "Aida" at the Met was the perfect union of the best of old and new, and anyone who loves opera should go see it.
I would also heartily endorse it to anyone who thinks they don’t like opera, but isn’t quite sure.
The splendiferous addition to the company’s 1988 production was the production’s titular star, soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska. The Ukrainian singer has a beautiful voice that combines control, power and delicacy. Her floating top notes are reminiscent of the great Beverly Sills, and her spinto voice can be heartbreaking.
The beloved thing of antiquity that is beautifully well-preserved is production supervisor Sonja Frisell and set designer Gianni Quaranta’s wildly over-the-top vision of ancient Egypt during the days of the Pharoahs: towering sandstone palaces with elaborately wrought frescoes, hieroglyphics and bas-reliefs, inlaid floors, dancing slave girls and boys in properly immodest costumes, chargers ridden by long-haired men in loin cloths -- the whole arranged with swiftly rising and falling sets.
It’s Cecil B. DeMille but without cheapness or want of grace. This is the grand spectacle that every honest opera lover desires, and that Verdi himself would surely have delighted in.
Let us note here that the composer wrote the opera for the most practical of motives: a huge payday. Intent on getting attention for his foundering nation, the Egyptian ruler Ismail Pasha offered Verdi 150,000 French Francs to write an opera set in Egypt to premiere there. This Verdi did, not even bothering to travel to Cairo to attend the opening night.
An eminently pragmatic man, Verdi would surely not have looked down his nose at such expense or such pleasure in detail and grandeur as the Met provides with this venerable production.
Its mightiness well-serves this unabashedly melodramatic work, the story of an Ethiopian slave girl and sometime Princess who loves the Egyptian General Radames, even as he is affianced to her rival Amneris. If "Aida" has not the substance of "Otello," nor the heart of "Rigoletto," it has a wonderful throbbing pulse, and the music has an unceasing energy that in a production as dazzling as this one carries the audience forward through three and half hours of marches, choruses and pageantry with hardly a dull moment.
The commanding sound drew at once from the pit, Fabio Luisi’s superlative conducting, and from the company’s well-trained chorus.
This production’s "Aida" is also complimented on stage by a number of other excellent players. Foremost among these are the always forceful Olga Borodina, who uses her mezzo effectively as Aida’s rival, and a superb Alberto Mastromarino as Aida’s father, the Ethiopian king, Amonasro.
Filling in for the ill Marco Berti as Radames was Carl Tanner, quite a competent substitute.
It is sad to think that the fanatics now taking power in the lands along the Nile would not permit such secular pleasures nor such flesh-baring in present-day Cairo. How pitiful! Yet how fortunate are we to have this here!