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The Grandest and Greatest of Grand Operas

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
10/02/2009 -  & October 7*, 12, 17, 21, 24, 29, November 2, 6
Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
Violeta Urmana (Aida), Dolora Zajick (Amneris), Johan Botha (Radamès), Carlo Guelfi (Amonasro), Roberto Scandiuzzi (Ramfis), Stefan Kocán (The King), Adam Laurence Herskowitz (A Messenger), Jennifer Check (Priestess)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Daniele Gatti (Conductor)
Sonja Frisell (Production), Gianni Quaranta (Set Design), Dada Saligeri (Costume Design), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Design), Alexei Ratmansky (Choreographer), Stephen Pickover (Stage Director)

V. Urmana and D. Zajick (© Marty Sohl)

One may quibble about the number of extras, golden carriages and horses, and even the odd elephant or two that should go into any production of Aida. But what cannot be denied is that the staging of Aida demands pageantry and elaborate ritual as vehicles to emphasize the patriotism that lies at its very heart. For Aida is a grand opera par excellence, with the destiny of its four protagonists played out against a war between their two countries, Egypt and Ethiopia. Whereas in Puccini’s Tosca, for example, the claims of patriotism are crucial for the plot, they are not central to the human drama. In Aida, the moral and psychological nightmare that arises when an individual’s loyalty to country is directly in conflict with his or her dearest personal goals and dreams becomes the central tragic dilemma of the work.

Egypt and Ethiopia are bitter enemies. Aida is the captured daughter of Amonasro, the Ethiopian king. Radamès is the captain of the guard in the Egyptian army. Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian king, is in love with Radamès, but he has eyes only for Aida. And she loves him. But the claims of romantic love and love of country (the latter embodied for Aida by her father), come directly into conflict. At Amonasro’s urging, Aida entices Radamès to betray a military secret. He is tried and convicted of treason. After a musically mesmerizing legal proceeding, he is sentenced to be buried alive.

Radamès resigns himself to death as fit punishment for his betrayal of his country. But in the tomb he finds Aida, who has decided to die with him. Although Verdi does give these two lovers wonderful music that embodies their love (particularly in the exquisite tomb scene of act four), he has drawn them in a somewhat generic manner. Such a depiction is fully consistent with Aida’s status as a more classical work, certainly when contrasted with Verdi’s earlier romantic operas, such as Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore. Aida’s classicism is both thematic (with the chorus as the embodiment of the social order) and formal (with its sense of equilibrium and its action unfolding with almost geometric precision).

The conflict between love and duty faced by Aida and Radamès is a staple of tragedy going back to the ancient Greeks. For Amneris (the daughter of the Egyptian king) the conflict is of a more personal kind. She loves Radamès, wants him for herself, and is consumed with jealousy over his preference for Aida. And, of course, Amneris also feels a patriotic duty which is in direct conflict with her love. Does she love him enough to see him happy with another woman? Amneris does try and save Radamès, but to no avail. Of all the characters in the opera, she is the most dramatically interesting and, in a sense, the most modern.

The chorus, although not the main character as it is in Nabucco, plays an enormously important role. Donald Palumbo’s corps of extraordinarily talented singers performed to a standard that really could not have been higher. Thick or thin in texture, loud or soft in dynamics, in celebration or incantation, they were splendid.

Vocal kudos also belong to Johan Botha and Dolora Zajick for their performances as Radamès and Amneris, respectively. Botha reminds one of the previous generation of “stand and deliver” tenors. He is a rather wooden stage presence. But, musically speaking, he definitely delivered the goods. He sang with a beautiful tone, effortless power, ringing high notes and a marvelous legato line. He sang “Celeste Aida” with melting lyricism and ringing sustained high notes. And he was also marvelous in the duet with Aida in act four.

Dolora Zajick was in splendid voice, particularly in acts two and four. She seemed to embody her character in a way that her colleagues did not embody theirs. In act two, she sang with a beautiful mellow tone and a sinuous legato line. Her performance in act four was a vocal and dramatic tour de force. Filled with anguish and regret, she pleaded for Radamès’ life in vain. She sang with unforced power and gorgeous tone, especially in the lower part of her range.

Violeta Urmana gave a vocally uneven performance. She did deliver some lovely pianissimos in act one. She was best in the tomb scene with Radamès in act four, beginning with that extraordinary dirge-like melody. She went on to sing Verdi’s exquisite music with a beautifully pure tone, a vocal shimmer, lovely pianissimos, and a fine legato line. As was the case with Botha, her acting abilities are rather meager.

Most disappointing of all the soloists was Carlo Guelfi as Amonasro. Although not a large role compared with the other principals, it is dramatically pivotal. For it is Amonasro’s demand that his daughter betray her lover for the sake of her country that crystallizes her dilemma and propels the drama to its inescapable tragic conclusion. Guelfi’s voice was dry and thin, and he failed vocally to embody his role. Roberto Scandiuzzi and Stefan Kocán as Ramfis and the King, respectively, sonorous basses both, acquitted themselves extremely well.

This production by Sonja Frisell was exceptionally detailed and evocative. The scenes, mounted on a colossal scale with beautifully composed tableaux, were spectacular in every sense of the word. The triumphal march was both the visual peak and also the dramatic crux of the opera.

There has been a lot of discussion recently (mostly related to Luc Bondy’s production of Tosca at the Met), about the importance of fidelity to the composer’s intentions. Whereas Verdi’s romantic operas are readily movable to other times and locales (Jonathan Miller’s marvelous production of Rigoletto set in Little Italy, is but one example), Aida is something altogether different. It is specifically a work set in and about ancient Egypt. Verdi did an extraordinary amount of research to ensure authenticity. Although no one really knows what Egyptian music sounded like, Verdi had his own ideas and invented a new “Egyptian” trumpet. He was also closely involved in writing the libretto and in working on details of the staging. He even stipulated that none of the performers could sport beards or moustaches. He did all of that in order to conjure up Egyptian civilization on the opera stage.

Daniele Gatti and the Met Orchestra gave a marvelously nuanced performance. Throughout Gatti maintained excellent control over the dynamics of orchestra and chorus. Verdi’s beautiful and diverse orchestral palette and his marvelously varied textures were wonderfully realized.

Aida premiered in Cairo on December 24, 1871. Six weeks later, it opened at La Scala. The next day, Verdi wrote to a friend: “The audience reacted favorably. I don’t want to affect modesty with you, but this opera is certainly not one of my worst. Time will afterward give it the place it deserves.”

And so it has.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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