Metropolitan Opera 2016-17 Review – Aida: Conductor Daniele Rustioni Dominates, Leads Riveting Cast In Memorable Performance

By David Salazar

I preface this by stating that this review is for the performance on March 31, 2017. I would also like to recognize that this is just one, performance of a seven-performance run. In an ideal situation, I would attend every performance and write a detailed review of the overall work. As it stands, I can only go on my perspective of one performance.

Despite being such a familiar opera, “Aida” is treacherous for all the performers involved. Of course, most of the spotlight turns on the singers, as is often the case with most Verdi operas, but the conductor might actually have the most challenging work the entire evening, allowing the audience to plunge into the symphonic score and uncovering its many riches.

Over the last few years at the Met, most conductors I have experienced tend to go for a “bigger-is-better” approach, placing an emphasis on the heavier orchestral colors and the fact that “Aida” is grand opera. But this approach leaves the viewer unsatisfied, Verdi’s music coming off as blunt and brusque. The delicate sections (Act 3 one onward, especially) are lacking in dramatic contrast that Verdi so painstakingly delivered and even the “loud” public scenes come off as exaggerated and quite frankly, boring.

So thankfully Maestro Daniele Rustioni, who is all of 34-years-old, didn’t buy into that histrionic trend, opting for carrying the listener through a truly dramatic adventure that really brought Verdi’s detail to life.

A Star Conductor in the Making

Let’s start with a discussion of tempo. In order to match their brass-heavy approach, most conductors in recent years have opted for slower tempi, giving the opera more “weight” and “grandeur.” But this approach has slowed down and diminished Verdi’s trademark dramatic velocity. Rustioni did not subscribe exclusively to faster tempi, but he certainly didn’t wallow in any phrases. In fact, one could sense the opera in constant motion. Sections, where singers tend to seize control of notes or fermatas, were not quite as self-indulgent. The opening of the second act and it’s hard chords was speedier in its approach, guiding the listener into a far more energetic rendition of the opening chorus. But what was far more interesting was that Rustioni contrasted the opening phrase with a softer dynamic on its repeat, elaborating on this pattern throughout the opening of the section.

Personally, I listen out for one particularly demonic passage of music to get a true sense of the conductor’s control over the group and attention to detail – the transition between the Act 4 duet between Amneris and Radamès and the judgment scene. The score is laden with competing chromatic syncopations all over the orchestra. For years, I have heard most conductors and the Met Opera Orchestra trip through this passage over the past few years, turning into (and I apologize) disastrous mush. The problem truly comes when the brass section enters at the climax of the passage and most conductors simply have not been able to piece the puzzle together effectively, letting all the instruments holler as loudly as possible, hoping that the noise will produce the intended dramatic effect. But Rustioni managed to keep it dramatically powerful but precise in execution with a strong balance throughout the orchestra. And he did it at a rather swift tempo by most comparisons.

His attention to the ensemble in the orchestra was truly mesmerizing. That opening of Act 3, with the precision in the arpeggiated violins, allowed the winds to flow seamlessly, the two sections working together to take us to a mystical world. Aida’s entrance, her melody in the winds with the strings scurrying, gave us strong emotional counterpoint while keeping us grounded in the world surrounded by the flowing Nile River.

Even the subtle rumbles of the timpani during the judgment scene came through with just enough emphasis to up the dramatic tension. The end of Aida’s “Ritorna Vincitor,” a subtle postlude that ends quietly, the final cello notes left in suspension, was impossible to ignore, the void they left dramatically poignant, leaving the listener wanting more.

But perhaps Rustioni’s greatest accomplishment on the night was to draw out such wondrous depth from the orchestra without every stealing the spotlight from his cast. If anything, his attention to their subtle gestures was so dedicated that he seemed to push them to another level, offering them exquisite support.

As the third act duet between Aida and Radamès started, soprano Krassimira Stoyanova pushed the tempo a bit forward during the initiation of her first melody. It was clearly not the tempo that Rustioni had suggested during the introduction and yet, he immediately adjusted to her without any glitches from the orchestra. There was no orchestra climax that ever overpowered any singer, the voices coming through crystal clear from the orchestra section.

When he pranced onto the stage to take his bow at the end of the night, the audience erupted with more excitement than it had at any point before. And it was completely deserved as his performance has quickly risen into one of the finest at the Met this season. And to be frank, this is the best I have heard the Met Opera Orchestra in “Aida” in years.

Here’s to hearing this rising star conductor in many more operas in the near future.

A Truly Tragic Aida

Speaking of the cast, you couldn’t have asked for better. In the title role, Krassimira Stoyanova placed great emphasis on the tragic dimensions of Aida. From her first appearances, bowing before Amneris, this Aida was frail and defeated. Her “Ritorna Vincitor” was fraught with doubt and fear, her phrasing delicate. Her “I sacri nomi di padre d’amante,” was sung with rhythmic emphasis on the sixteenth notes littering the passage, driving the tempo forward and expressing Aida’s conflicted emotions. Most impressive was the gradual crescendo she gave the passage, climaxing in the “Numi, pieta,” here sung as a passionate lament. It was during this section that Stoyanova was more captivating, no word or note unimportant. “Pieta” got a powerful accent, as did the ensuing “sofrir.” Some might say that in her vocal gestures, this aria at times sounded more like it belonged in a Verismo opera, but it didn’t take away from the emotional power that Stoyanova transmitted. One could feel that Aida understood her fate and was clinging to one last hope, even if deep in her heart she knew it was a false one. It established her character for most of the opera – a woman knowingly fighting the currents of fate. Her decision to ultimately die is simply an admission of said destiny, but she does it on her own terms instead of holding out for some deus ex machina to save her.

Stoyanova does not possess a titanic voice that one might be accustomed to hearing in this role, but that did not mean she lacked the dramatic potency. The confrontation scene with Violetta Urmana’s Amneris was a firecracker of a scene (actually, the opera’s three major tête-a-têtes were among the night’s most riveting moments), explosive and unpredictable. While Aida spends a large portion of it submitting to Amneris, she stands her ground for a few moments, particularly when she is about to reveal her identity. Here Stoyanova, walking away from a column she clung to, imposed her voice and got in her adversary’s voice before backing off and kneeling. Aida repeats her plea to Amneris twice and Stoyanova ratcheted up her intensity on the second-go-round, almost as if trying to force clemency out of her rival. Urmana meanwhile stood her ground, glaring at her rival, her voice booming with pointed phrasing. Verdi’s operas really come to life when the diction is first class in these moments and it was exactly that during this incredible scene.

With Amneris walking off the stage, Aida gets one more “Numi Pieta,” this one delivered with the most vocal urgency from Stoyanova, a pained cry for help.

The third act is what makes or breaks the opera and Stoyanova’s delicate “O Patria Mia” came to a dramatic halt as she took a breath before launching a wondrously guttural High C Natural that encapsulated the character’s torment and suffering. But this was bettered in the ensuing scenes with Amonasro and Radamès. The former, again one of those one-on-one confrontations that Verdi dominated. Stoyanova threw herself to the ground to beg forgiveness of her father after rejecting his request, her pleas of “Pieta” more impassioned with each repetition, losing their vocal beauty in favor of more expressive intonations. After he threw her away and turned his back on her, Stoyanova made the most out her ensuing phrases, “Pieta! Padre! A costoro schiava non sono.” Stoyanova accented each word violently, fighting back on his insult while also making us feel the pain of her conflict. She eventually eased up on the accenting, her voice giving way to its legato beauty as Aida accepted his offer. And as she did, Gagnidze turned back to her in time for the glorious passage of conciliation “Pensa che un popolo.”

The ensuing duet with Jorge de León’s Radamès was particularly memorable for their ability to merge their voices seamlessly in the triumphant final section, the two lovers in agreement to move forward with their lives away from Egypt. This was also present in the final scene of the night, the glorious “O Terra addio,” thought in Stoyanova’s voice, there was polish and brightness that had not been present otherwise, giving a sense of relaxation for a tortured soul.

A Vocal Warrior

Tenor Jorge de León’s instrument is a powerful one and it certainly rang through the Met with confidence and tremendous brightness. He showed no trepidation in the opening “Celeste Aida,” a passage that usually trips up even the best of tenors, his legato smooth and his vocal climaxes soaring through the auditorium. Radamès, the potent soldier, has to do battle with massive choral sections throughout the opera, his voice often in danger of being engulfed by the massive ensemble. But that was never the case with the Spanish tenor as his voice had an unlimited supply of heft and power that it rang above everyone else’s voice.

I was particularly thrilled by his work in the Act 3 duet with Aida, his entrance passage “Pur ti riveggio,” the brightness of his timbre and articulation of each consonant making Radamès feel like an endearing boy scout. But when he quickly realized the nature of Aida’s request during their ensuing duet, his initial phrases were fraught with instability, the tenor placing heart-wrenching accents on “Abandonar la patria.” Eventually, it settled into a more delicate color, giving a sense of Radamès easing into his new reality and perception.

His confrontation scene with Amneris saw de León and Urmana trading vocal jabs with one another pleas growing in forcefulness while his repeated “Non posso” rigid and firm in their enunciation. As she grew in anger at his refusal, he fired back, his voice phrasing more accented, the anger the two unleashed on one another growing more and more strained until the orchestra exploded in frenzy.

While I admired de León’s vocal power, exact intonation, and overall confidence, I did find that his performance lacked in overall dynamic. While heft is important to the role, Verdi calls for the tenor to sing like a lyric tenor throughout the opera, which de León rarely ever did. The final duet, which does call for more a delicate approach, saw the tenor singing with as much force as he did during the massive choral scene of Act 2. That interpretational divergence can be detrimental to other tenors that lack any true dramatic prowess onstage, but de León’s overall portrayal was strong enough to make up for it.

Violetta Urmana Triumphs as a Mezzo

I have to be forward. I was not the biggest fan of Violetta Urmana in the title role of the opera, mainly because I think that her voice is simply far better suited to the mezzo repertoire. And her Amneris is a testament to that, her dramatic security and boldness making the Egyptian Princess the embodiment of firmness and strength throughout the opera’s opening acts. And yet, Amneris is as delicate and fragile as her rival at her low points. After hearing her so precise and imposing in the first two acts, her appearance at the start of Act 3, her subtle declaration of love for Radamès came as a breath of fresh air, the legato fluid, and the timbre sweetened.

The first scene of Act 4 belongs to the Princess and Urmana expressed every ounce of Amneris’ tragedy every moment she got. After seeing her lose her temper throughout the scene with Radamès, Urmana made the most of the brief monologue Verdi gave her, holding onto the repeated “Io stessa lo gettai! ” emphasizing her feeling of guilt and reminding us how powerful Verdi’s marriage of text to music can be in the most capable of hands. Amneris gets the final words in the opera, something often overlooked in the face of the sublime duet between Aida and Radamès. Amneris’ sobbing phrasing reminded us that the tragedy of the opera belonged not to the two lovers, but to the three involved in the triangle.

A Beast Unleashed

Baritone George Gagnidze’s instrument is a blunt one, but it suits the violent Amonasro perfectly. His growling sound came through with cataclysmic power during the central section of the third act duet with Aida. Barreling over the orchestra, Gagnidze constructed the portrait of a ferocious beast that delivered his most vicious blow on the climactic “Dei Faraoni tu si la schiava.” His crescendo on “Faraoni” was particularly thrilling as he held the note for as long as he could muster before deliver the final backhanded blow on the end of the phrase. And yet as he turned to console his daughter, he mustered up a solid legato phrase, showing a massive contrast between the monster he had unleashed a few moments earlier.

James Morris’ Ramfis was imposing, the legendary bass’ voice booming even with the ever-present wobble. As the King, Morris Robinson’s bass had a clearer sound but was just as ever-present in his brief passages. Jennifer Johnson Cano delivered exquisite singing as the Priestess during the second scene of Act 1.

Props to the Met Opera Chorus which was as exhilarating in its big scenes and added to the mystical color in the quieter final scenes. The team of dancers also deserves a round of applause for solid execution.

The production by Sonja Frisell is monumental visual and it was impossible to ignore the “oohs” and “aahs” that I heard around me when the horses walked onto the stage in the big triumphal march, but it is also clear that revival directors are not doing much in the way of creative ideas.

That said, this cast got one orchestra rehearsal prior to the performance, Stoyanova told OperaWire during an interview last week, so expecting much in the way of creative staging seems like a big ask.

But at the same time, that fact makes this music cohesiveness all the more impressive. And it all comes back to the clarity of vision of one man – Rustioni. There are still four more performances of this “Aida.” I suggest you give it a look.


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