Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, completed in 1871, marks one of the greatest triumphs in opera. Since it was first performed Cairo in 1872, the work has been one of the most significant mainstays in the standard repertory for all major opera companies around the world. A recent performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, transmitted in high definition to movie theaters across the world, was another tally to add to a work the company has performed more than 1,100 times. Aida's longevity and popularity are due in large part to the scale on which it is conceived. It is, for many people, emblematic of the term “grand opera”, a style that flourished in the 19th century as a way to show off to the public new and exciting operatic productions. The more the public liked the style, the more grandiose the operas became, and Aida is the grandest of all.
Set in ancient Egypt, Aida essentially incorporates Verdi's favorite story, a melodrama involving doomed lovers. Aida's characters are especially conflicted. Radames (in the Met production, tenor Roberto Alagna) returns from a major victory in battle against the rebellious Ethiopians, whose princess Aida (soprano Liudmyla Monastryska) has been enslaved as the servant to Amneris (mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina), the daughter of the pharaoh. Amneris loves Radames, but Radames and Aida love each other. Jealous that her chief rival for Radames' affection is her servant, Amneris longs to plot against Aida, and gets her opportunity for revenge when Radames gives away a military secret to Aida's father, Amonastro (baritone George Gagnidze), and she betrays him, leading to his death sentence by being buried alive. Aida, who escaped after Radames' betrayal, returns to her beloved to be buried with him and the pair die in each other's arms. Amneris is the powerful fulcrum around which many of the opera's events turn, as she uses her power to destroy Radames and Aida. However, as remorse grips her character, we see her assureds crumble before our eyes, as she is reduced to a penitent in the opera's final scene, when she laments the unhappiness she caused the pair. The melodrama allowed the mature Verdi, who had already composed the bulk of his work up to that point, to write some of the most polished and sublime music of his career, and the result was an unqualified triumph that continues up until this day.
Aida's grandiosity is a style which contains some drawbacks as well the undeniable strengths associated with it. The massive production, which contains the some of largest (if not the largest) choruses in any opera, several military marches, several ballet sequences, and massive sets which depict an ancient, “exotic” culture. The setting has enabled opera companies to produce lavish exhibitions depicting ancient Egypt, especially in the opera's second act “Triumphal Scene”, when Radames returns from his victory over the Ethiopians, and it frequently uses animals on stage to demonstrate the spoils of victory and transport the audience to an ancient time. It was this portrayal of ancient Egypt that prompted the late Edward Said, a critic of Western views of the Middle East and a great music lover (though not of Verdi), to criticize Aida for the way it “[confirms] the Orient as an essentially exotic, distant, and antique place in which Europeans can mount certain shows of force.” The values the opera portrays are essentially nineteenth-century European ones, not ancient Egyptian ones; Said writes, “Aida embodies, as it was intended to do, the authority of Europe's version of Egypt in a moment in its nineteenth century history.” The opera's excesses are not necessarily emblematic of ancient Egypt, but an imposed vision of it by people who understood the situation through perhaps jaundiced eyes. It is with this context that we are able to understand better the grandeur of Aida and see through its excesses to the music which is timelessly singular, a fact that even Said acknowledges.
The Met's performance was quite successful. The cast of this production is a highly effective one, distinguished by a fresh face in the title role. Liudmyla Monastryska's Aida is a memorable characterization, though a bit stiff at times. She was in full command of her voice, including her pianissimos at high C in Act 3. This role is her Met debut and I suspect she will be singing Aida and other roles at the house for many years to come. With Roberto Alagna in the role of Radames, I couldn't help but be reminded of the incident in 2006 when Alagna walked off the stage while singing the role at La Scala in Milan in mid-performance because he was booed by some of the audience. Fortunately, no such incident took place during this performance and his performance, on the whole, was very satisfactory. He is not a true tenore di forza, which is generally required of a Radames, but his highly effective lyricism made his interpretation quite memorable. As Amneris, Olga Borodina, a seasoned veteran in the role, gave her character aristocratic bearing, particularly in the early scenes of the opera; she seems to be in complete control of a situation which is disadvantageous to her romantically, but one which she can manipulate using her authority to destroy, the love between Aida and Radames. She also gave a vivid portrayal of her character's disintegration, conveying Amneris's remorse over her betrayal and quietly attempting to expiate her betrayal of Aida and Radames in the final scene. Her mannerisms on stage were at times, like her costume and makeup, a bit too reminiscent of a silent cinema melodrama star. George Gagnidze portrayed Amonasro, Aida's father, and though it was not a spectacular turn, it was competent. Fabio Luisi, who is digging in as the Met's principal conductor, conducting Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera, and Berlioz's Les Troyens at the same time, led a highly professional performance of the caliber that we have come to expect as a given from the Met's orchestra.
The production, directed by Sonja Frisell, with sets designed by Gianni Quaranta, is a rather old one, dating back to the 1980's, and it is more in line with the conservative productions normally used by the Met. The sets are overwhelmingly large, giving us the full “grand opera” effect. I suspect one reason why the Met stays with this production is so that nobody seeing Aida for the first time is cheated out of the effects that have become commonplace in the opera. The stone pillars, the massive pictographs, and the massive temple, from which we view the triumphal scene, all give the desired effect. They are not exceptional visually, but they are impressive enough. What did impress me was the ability to move pieces of the enormous sets above and below the stage to strip away some of the effect for more intimate scenes. I was particularly taken with this effect, given the size of the sets to be manuvered. The costumes were not excessively gaudy either, with the aforementioned exception of Amneris, which I thought was a bit overdone.
The Met's HD broadcast of Aida will be re-transmitted Wedensday, January 16, at 6:30 PM local time.
Photos: Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera of New York