By Francisco Salazar
(For 11/23/2012 performance)
In the last few years the Met has suffered subpar casting choices and routine conductors for Verdi's Aida making for some of the most forgettable nights at the opera. On Friday the opposite occurred. Sonja Frisell's beloved 1988 production of Aida returned to the Met with an outstanding cast and incredible conducting.
On this night rising star Ukranian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska made her Met debut. Already a superstar in her native country, Monastyrska came to worldwide acclaim after an unforgettable Lady Macbeth at the Royal Opera House. She made her US debut at the Richard Tucker gala a few days before opening night singing an aria from Macbeth and stole the show. Therefore the expectations for Monastyrska were high on this night. Monstyrska more than superseded expectations making her Aida one for the ages and one that will be difficult to top. Monatyrska possesses an agile and huge voice that easily rang through Verdi's huge orchestra and massive choruses. She was also able to sing beautiful phrases and immaculate pianissimos. During her first aria "Ritorna Vincitor," Monastyrska easily brought to life Aida's confusion and remorse. Each phrase was sung with power and yet with delicacy demonstrating her suffering and her pleas to her Gods. At the end of the aria when Aida states "Numi Pieta" (God have pity), Monastyrska gave each line a sense of yearning. This was once again repeated at the end of the Amneris-Aida duet. In her second aria "O Patria Mia" Monastyrska's brought nostalgia to each line she sang. At the climax of the aria, her high C was sung not just as a showstopper but as a cry for her country.
As Aida's rival the imposing mezzo soprano Olga Borodina returned to the role of Amneris with the same authority she brings to each one of her roles and easily brought the most complex and vivid character of the evening. From the moment Borodina entered the stage she brought the audience's attention to her with her powerful voice. During her confrontation duet with Monastyrska, Borodina brought an authoritarian character that demonstrated that she was in control of the scene. Her voluptuous voice easily rang with force especially her lower and middle voice. During this duet, Borodina towered over Monastyrska who lied down on the floor pleading for Amneris's forgiveness. However Borodina's theatrical presence made it apparent that her Amneris would not budge. There was even a moment where it seemed as if Borodina was about to hit Monastyrska's Aida. The result was a duet filled with anticipation and power that easily stood out as one of the best moments in the evening. However Borodina soon gave the audience another side to her character. During her duet with Radames and the judgement scene Borodina demonstrated Amneris' desperation and love for Radames. All the power and authority she showed in the first two acts was no where to be seen. Borodina's voice also changed its color. Her middle range was sung as if she was in pleas and her higher range was sung as if she was crying with desperation. During her judgement scene Borodina also altered her rigid movement. As the priest's stated that Radames was a traitor, Borodina ran to each one asking for pity but upon seeing that Radames she leaned against the wall demonstrating her loss. While Borodina no longer possesses the high B flats required of the role, she easily threatened to steal the show with her riveting and raw judgement scene. At the end of the opera when she sang the final lines "Pace t'imploro" Borodina sang them with remorse and heartbreak.
In the role of Radames Carl Tanner stepped in for an indisposed Marco Berti. Tanner made his Met debut in 2010 for in one performance of La Fanciulla del West but never returned. Tanner entered the stage with security and even sang his first lines well. However his nerves started to kick in at the beginning of his aria "Celeste Aida." There were some shaky moments and some bad phrases. The transitions from his middle range to his high range were choppy. However during the second half of his aria things seemed to get better and final B flat was sung with security. Like Monastyrska, Tanner's voice easily rang through especially during the temple of Vulcan scene when Radames is being consecrated to the service of the God. Tanner's high range was surprisingly strong and even reminded me of Corelli. Some of his most memorable moments came at the end of the Nile scene when Radames surrenders. His final lines "Io resto a Te" was sung with power yet with agony. However there were some drawbacks to his performance. During the final duet "O Terra addio" between Aida and Radames, Tanner was unable to match Monastyrska's soft and tender line. He strayed off pitch and was unable to sing a true pianissimo line. There were some moments of apprehension during the Amneris-Radames duet where he rushed as well as during his Act 3 duet with Aida. Of course Tanner is not completely at fault as he most likely did not have enough rehearsal time. If he is allowed to sing another performance, Tanner should easily improve. If not he is still a singer who should return more often to Met as he possesses the qualities so few tenors have at the present moment.
As Amonasro, Aida's father Alberto Mastromarino sang with power, control and beauty. His voice while raw in color is easily controlled with his use of phrasing and his impressive high notes. During his Act 3 duet with Aida, Mastromarino sang his powerful line "Non sei mia figlia, dei Faraoni, tu sei la schiava" with authority and held the climatic high G flat giving it dramatic weight. Then when he is forced to console his daughter he added tenderness and impassioned colors to his voice. When Amneris discovers Radames with Amonasro and Aida, Mastromarino lashed out his final lines "Muori" with fury making his Amonasro memorable. It is a shame Mastromarino won't be on the HD transmission because he is the Verdi Baritone the Met has been waiting for.
As Ramfis Stefan Kocan sang with raw colors and Miklos Sebestyen making his Met debut gave a formidable performance. Jennifer Check and Hugo Vera were also solid as the Priestess and Messenger.
Sonja Frisell's production remains a staple at the Met and a production that should not be touched. While the production lacks direction and can at times feel static with an unworthy cast, the sets and costumes remain beautiful to look at. Gianni Quaranta's sets whether with his use of sphinxes, or Egyptian catacombs, or with his immaculate scene transitions still looks epic. The Act 2 scene in the public square still obtains audiences' applause as the horses and pageantry walk past the set. The only drawback to the production is the new Ballet that was introduced in 2009. Alexei Ratmansky's ballet looks messy with the dancer's looking lost and he uses the stage poorly. At one point he bunches the dancers up in one corner of the stage and leaves the other side with dead space making for a very unappealing sequence. Thankfully this ballet does not harm the drama of the opera.
In the pit Fabio Luisi conducted his first Met Aida. Luisi brought a perpetual energy to the drama that never made the work feel static. During Verdi's climatic moments he gave the orchestra an immense power that was both balanced with the strings and winds. While he moved with swift tempi, Luisi allowed the singers there time to express. During Monastyrska's two arias Luisi followed as she changed the tempos. During Borodina's judgement scene he enhanced her dramatic singing with a strong wind section but never covered her or tried to out do her. His preludes were also beautiful especially his prelude to the Nile scene. Luisi made it seem as if the orchestra was really a river flowing through the coasts of Egypt. All in all Luisi gave Aida a dramatic weight that has been missing in at the Met for a while.
It is a shame that this will not be the cast for the Met's HD because as it is, the cast created one of the most riveting Met performances I have seen all year.