Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: Aida

A Bittersweet Farewell To Sonja Frisell’s Classic Production

By Francisco Salazar

On March 7, 2019, the Metropolitan Opera was celebrating a historical evening.

It was the final performance of Sonja Frisell’s legendary production of “Aida,” which has been around for 31 years. Yet for all the publicity that attracted a rapturous audience, the historical evening was business as usual and an anticlimax.

The performance featured no tribute or any type of indication that this was an evening for the books. Instead it offered a routine staging of a production that continues to receive applause for its lavish sets even when the elevator gets stuck in Act two, something most productions at the Met wish they had.

It’s a production that, while this writer has never really enjoyed, works on a theatrical level, balancing the grand operatic scale Verdi’s work requires, but also holds back in the more intimate moments with smaller sets. It’s a production which emphasizes detail on all levels, from its sets to its costumes, lighting and props. And yet throughout the past years that detail has been lost in its musical aspects or in its blocking, which only a cast of great singing actors can elevate. It’s recently choreographed ballet is a symbol of how little care has been taken fpr that art form in most of the recent Met productions as it featured  movement that often seems out of synch with the music.

And yet seeing the production for the last time, I realized that with some new direction, no blackface (as displayed in this final run), and new ballet choreography, it’s one that still stands the test of time. It’s a production that implements what the Metropolitan Opera’s stage was meant to be used for without the need for a cheap concept to tell its story and elicit the emotions in Verdi’s score. Afterall, the production is there to enhance the story not to distract from it.

So with this final performance, the Metropolitan Opera said goodbye to an era and gave way to a new production, which, if recent history of new productions for “Tosca” and “La Traviata” are any indication, won’t be that big of a departure.

Full circle

The evening had an interesting twist to it as Plácido Domingo, who opened the production back in 1988 as Radamés, was at the podium. A veteran of this particular opera, which he sang numerous times with the company and was actually the first opera he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, Domingo demonstrated intensity in the pit. One of the reasons Domingo has been one of the most admired musicians of his generation is for his emotional generosity on stage. And while he attempts the same potency while conducting, it’s not always successful.

On this evening, Domingo tended to favor languid tempi which pulled all the momentum away from Verdi’s score. In arias like “Ritorna Vincitor” or “O Patria Mia” he tended to extend each line, which often seemed to create discomfort for the singers. These slow tempi were also showcased in the duet between Amneris and Radamès, particularly in the second half as Olesya Petrova, the Amneris on this evening, was forced to slow down her lines in order to accommodate for Domingo’s tempi.

Then there was the stylistic choices which were questionable as Domingo tended for the bombastic fortes, emphasizing the brass and often overshadowing strings in many sections. The finale of the Nile scene, which has an incredibly rhythmic run for the strings, and the final moments of the judgement scene in which Amneris sings long lines of anguish, saw the string sections completely  lost and overpowered by brass and winds; it almost felt like the only instruments playing were those of the brass and winds, leaving Verdi’s score feel somewhat empty without the grounding from the string sections.

It was likely an emotional evening for the legendary artist as he said goodbye to one of his productions and perhaps this led to the mishaps in his conducting.

Thankfully the cast was on a different level.

The Hero

In the role of  Radamès, Jorge de Leon returned to the part of his Met debut in 2017.

On this evening De Leon portrayed Radames as a defiant, strong-willed hero motivated by the his love of Aida. That was especially noticeable in his vocal performance as he began the opera with a powerful sounding “Celeste Aida.”

From the beginning of the aria, De Leon blasted out his strong timbre resounding throughout the hall. It created a powerful impression and only got stronger as he ascended into his higher tessitura, especially on his high B Flats and B naturals. Those notes rang with clarion resonance and showcased the power of this voice.

Throughout the evening, De Leon would continue to pull off one high note after another without any effort and at one point during the “Gloria all’egitto” concertato, his sound easily went over the large ensemble.

Yet for all his virtuosity, one hoped for some subtly in his singing. Because De Leon’s voice is so gruff and at times blunt, rarely did his colors vary and the intonation, particularly in the opening trio and the duet with Aida during the Nile Scene, faltered.

But De Leon did have one moment where he changed it up – the final duet “O Terra addio.” After such heroic singing, De Leon finally sang with a quieter quality, matching that of Sondra Radvanovsky and floated the notes with the sensitivity and breath control that would have made his performance that much richer if he had only employed these vocal effects more throughout the night.

Still these moments of tenderness gave De Leon’s voice richer colors and allowed for a heartbreaking finale.

The Star

In the title role Sondra Radvanovsky had a clear idea of the character. As Aida, there was no doubt of her sense of conflict between her duty to her nation and her love for Radamés. So often we see interpreters favor the love for the Egyptian, but don’t feel the patriotic fervor; Radvanovsky explored both quite well.

From the beginning, Radvanovsky’s facial expression lit up every time she was in the presence of Radamès but quickly turned to anguish and pain as she turned to face her rival.

In the two women’s duet, Radvanovsky’s facial expressions articulated her sorrow over losing Radamés, but still explored her sense of power and presence in front of her rival. Ultimately it was a losing battle, even though you did sense that the power dynamics could shift with every turn.

During the concertato in Act two, Radvanovsky enlivened a scene that could generally be park and bark into something substantial. She embraced the Eithopian captives and interacted which each one demonstrating her allegiance to her country. However, that allegiance was put into question when it is announced that Amneris would be the bride of Radamès. Here Radvanovsky embraced the torn emotions of Aida as she continued to look back and forth to her father Amonasro and then back to Radamès. That suffering came to a climax in her “O Patria mia” and her duet with Amonasro as she took on a weaker demeanor. It made Aida a richer character and one that an audience could empathize with.

Vocally however, Radvanovsky had a mixed evening. As the performance began, the soprano took some time to warm up creating an uneven sound in her “Ritorna Vincitor,” which was also due to the slow tempi by Domingo. At one point in her “Numi pieta,” it sounded as if she had run out of air and cut her note short. When she ascended into her higher register in the aria, her piani created a harsh sound that sometimes skidded. That was especially present in her Act three aria “O Patria mia” as she ascended into the climatic High C. The note which she sang with fil di voce became uneven and there was a glimpse of a cracked note.

But besides these difficult moments, there was some glorious singing, particularly in her duet with Amneris.

You could hear the powerhouse soprano as Radvanovsky confronted Olesya Petrova’s Amneris in all her splendor. When she realizes that she is at a loss, Radvanovsky’s final lines were sung as a plea, the voice taking on an aching timbre that cut through with much emotion and frailty.

During her opening lines in “O Patria Mia,” Radvanovsky gorgeously crescendoed from a piano to a forte effortlessly and then created the same effect in the second repeat of the phrase. Then throughout the aria, the lines flowed with beauty and eas,e reminding us of how essential a Verdi singer she is. Regardless of the High C, this was a performance of incredible sentiment.

During the duet with Amonasro, Radvanovsky used the power of her voice to convey the incredible pain, particularly in the climatic moment “pieta.” Rather than using a vocal effect or gesture, Radvanovsky let her voice soar into the hall with all her force behind it. The subsequent “non maldedirmi” and “O patria mia quanto mi costi” radiated grief and emphasized that torn Aida that Radvanovsky so clearly defined. Her “O Terra addio” was another tour de force. Radvanovsky floated the lines of the duet and extended each moment as if trying to hold onto it. As it reached the end, her voice decrescendoed slowly, dying out as she fainted.

The Breakout

If Radvanovsky was radiant for most of the evening, Olesya Petrova was the star.

Though the mezzo had an uneven start to the showcase, bringing an arrogance to the fore during the trio, her Act two entrance finally showed us vulnerability and youthful passionate qualities.

That was on display through her softer singing as she ascended into the higher tessitura singing the phrases “Vien Amor mio!” Each repeat was softer but sung with increasingly ardent passion. Then in her duet with Aida, Petrova was all power, though there were hints of vulnerability that made it seem that she could lose at any moment. When Radvanovsky’s Aida was not looking at her, she betrayed her composure, expressing anger, pain and weakness. But when confronted with Aida, Petrova stood in imposing manner, singing with a strong chest voice and powerful top notes. Her “Trema” was menacing and it even felt defensive. These different expressions gave Petrova’s Amneris an incredibly rich complexity. It almost felt as if Amneris was putting on a mask in front of her “inferior,” trying to cover up all her emotions of insecurity.

Those emotions stayed in check until the judgement scene with Radamès. Here Petrova delivered impassioned phrases and desperation. She held on to her two high B flats in the climax with the duet, each one longer than the previous one. And each time, the voice took on a rounder and more powerful tone, which only deepened the sense of despertion.

In her short monologue, Petrova sang with gorgeous piano that grew with each phrase, suggesting a prayer-like quality; it mirrored Radvanovsky’s own “Numi pieta” in its approach, bringing the two rivals’ common humanity together all the more. Her repeated “Io stessa,” getting weaker and shorter with each phrased.

In the final confrontation with Ramfis, Petrova’s emotional turmoil was heightened with her physical approach as she ran toward each priest and eventually kneeled and begged them to forgive Radames. That was coupled with Petrova’s voice as she built each phrase from mezzo forte all the way to a fortissimo. Again, every “pieta” grew louder and more explosive, the final note a rush of intense adrenaline.

This scene was easily the highlight of the evening and one that announced as Petrova as a major singer to watch.

The Supporting Cast

Quinn Kelsey, who displayed a dominant Amonasro in the fall revival, returned to the production with the same powerful baritone, though this time he gave an even more menacing portrayal overall. Rather then go for the vocal beauty that he displayed in the fall, here he went for the harsh and blunt and it mostly worked. In his duet with Aida, his baritone boomed over the orchestra in its final moments particularly the parola scenica “non sei mia figlia.” However, he juxtaposed that with some tenderness and softer singing in his opening lines “rivedrai le forest imbalsamate.” As the duet expanded and developed, Kelsey’s voice took on a gruff timbre, moving away from loving father to fearsome warrior King.

It must be noted that Kelsey displayed great chemistry with Radvanovsky. He baited her during the concertato, tearing her further between country and her love. Then in the duet he towered over her, almost as if he was looking down on a subject. There was only one moment in his performance that was not convincing and that was in the moment where he attempts to kill Amneris. Rather then go for Radamès’ knife with vigor, he took it nonchalantly and let De Leon easily take it away. The staging looked awkward and took away from the menacing character that Kelsey had created to that point.

In the role of Ramfis, Stefan Kocan coupled his reliable bass to a more reserved and villainous characterization of Ramfis. The voice was strong but at times seemed a bit wanting in more colors.

Soloman Howard displayed a powerful bass as the King. He made his debut in this role four years ago and it seems time that Met could give him a role of more substance to really bring out all this singer has to offer.

The two solo dancers Min-Tzu Li and Brian Gephart exuded chemistry and grace in their number but were hindered by Alexei Ratmanansky’s basic choreograph that, as noted, didn’t synchronize with the music.

All in all it was bittersweet and emotional presentation. A performance that while not perfect showed the glimpses of the Met at its best. And while this Sonja Frisell production was at times dismissed by critics for being huge and distracting, it will be strange to see a Met program announcing “Aida” without the big pyramids and the lavish set photographs. All one can hope is that the next production can live up to the grandeur and spectacle and can become the hit this production was for 31 years.


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