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19 April, 2015

Spectacular Aida again at the Met.

Aida - Verdi - Metropolitan Opera House, New York City. Friday 17th April 2015
I attended the second last outing of Aida for this season with Maestro Domingo on the podium and a strong cast.  When still one of the three tenors Domingo had been the original Radames in this classic production’s premiere in 1988 - along with Leona Mitchell, Sherrill Milnes, Fiorenza Cossotto and James Levine in the pit.  This is one of the few productions to survive the ‘Gelb purge’, the reason being that it would be hard to beat! 
While I adore the massive Egyptian colossi, sphinxes, march of hundreds, horses and triumphalism, for the purist it is a clever fraud stylistically.  It was fortuitous that I visited the Egyptian wing at the Metropolitan Museum earlier in the day, noting that the set designer Gianni Quaranta must have done the same thing, quite correctly, but got one major detail totally wrong.  Those faded frescoes, chipped statues and archaeological remnants would all have been new and vibrant at the time of the opera.  I once saw Anna Bolena at Covent Garden just after visiting the Tower of London and noted some similar incongruities. 
But I am being pedantic and the singing is what really matters … and it was 9 out of 10 for the most part - the Met chorus scoring ten.  Mark Delevan was most impressive playing Amonasro, as was Ramfis, played by Stefan Kocan a solid Met regular. 
Italian Marco Berti was fine as Radames managing the almost impossible Celeste Aida more than passably with much accurate and exciting singing beyond. 
Lithuanian Violeta Urmana was splendid as Amneris although her usually strong mid-voice seemed underpowered at times.  Her highs and lows were exemplary as was her drama especially at the end of Act IV, Scene 1 when she is torn between anger, love and grief. 
Oksana Dyka from the Ukraine (meaning ‘borderlands’) sang an excellent Aida.  Her dramatic input was stereotyped and her arms out-arms in became repetitive and irritating at times.  Her voice rose to numerous substantial heights yet she did not break any records (or chandeliers).  Maria Callas has detracted from the end of Act II for all who have heard recordings of her phenomenal feat in Mexico City singing a long, powerful and exciting E flat above chorus and orchestra.  The only more exciting thing I have heard is the thunderous applause from the audience following that high note.  A less stable nation might have been driven to a coup d’etat. 
The Met production by Sonja Frisell also has many high points but it is hard to go past the start of her Triumphal March which is still a breathtaking stage phenomenon no matter how many times one has seen it.  Aida is a brilliantly constructed drama conceived in outline by doyenne Egyptologist Auguste Mariette (who is not credited on the Met program title page).  The characters and interactions are all believable to me.  Verdi put all his mature genius into this work, having been brought out of retirement by the King of Egypt, his own wife and numerous others around him.  Possibly more than any other composer he developed his art - over six decades. 
While the drama, melodies, vocal ornaments and choruses are exemplary in Aida, for me the unique factor lies in the brief orchestral sections starting and finishing each act.  As with Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera, we have instrumental emotion, characterisation and even personality shining through an art which began with Gregorian chants a thousand years earlier (and these were unaccompanied!).   Listen for the crickets at the start of the Nile Scene! 
The Met orchestra was marvellous including six trumpeters on stage for the big scene.  The players know what they are doing with this popular ‘pot boiler’ being the ‘A’ of the ‘ABC’ of operas.  And some of the senior members may have played under Toscanini!  Much of the excited applause was clearly for the conductor Mr Domingo who Mr Gelb quoted recently to the audience as ‘immortal at the Met’.  And his presence must have contributed to the near full houses of recent performances. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
Andrew’s Travels:
More soon (if I can) on Ernani both with and without Mr Domingo; new Cav&Pag production by David McVicar, A Masked Ball, Don Carlos and The Merry Widow.  A marvellous month of opera despite frequent illness amongst the singers.  Even some pre-Bach choral masses from Spain!