This review is for the performance on Monday, January 14, 2019.
This season’s revival of “Aida” is well underway after opening in September of 2018, boasting a compelling cast of artists such as Anita Rachvelishvili and Anna Netrebko. The second cast which reopened the opera’s run earlier this month has re-stoked the fires of excitement and offered audiences freshness to enliven the traditional production.
Standing The Test of Time
Sonja Frisell’s sumptuous 1988 production of Verdi’s timeless “Aida” brings to life the composer’s vision of Egypt in spectacular fashion. For all the opulence, hardly anything seemed overdone. Many of the sets featured walls with paintings and hieroglyphs, but their faded, time-worn colors prevented them from being a distraction; when one’s gaze is directly on the artists, the illustrations all meld together beautifully. During the extravagance of the Act two triumphal scene, the chariots pulled by live horses were a sight to behold. One of the horses that remained in the background during the recitative did hold my attention for some time; as it quickly flicked its head a number of times I couldn’t help but wonder if it would need to be calmed down.
The scene where Radamès is bestowed with the armor and weapons was wonderfully handled; the chorus was united into a reverent whisper, setting a fertile ground for the woodwinds to rise from. Though there were many statues of presumed deities, the central statue in this scene was that of a pair of feet which extended above the sight of the stage; the impression created was that of a god so great only its lowest parts fall into the world of mortals.
As Radamès, Yonghoon Lee’s dramatic tenor provided a wealth of vocal colors to draw from; his heavy timbre and bold physicality favored the warrior side of the character. While Lee seized the power of the early aria “Celeste Aida,” he showed the ability to deftly pivot to a softer, loving dynamic. As the orchestra rose, the sharpness of his gestures seemed to show him grappling with his emotions physically, and resulted in an ardent climax to finish the aria.
While Lee’s Radamès maintained the composure expected of a soldier with Amneris, the entrance of Aida saw him taking a step back, cornering himself with the doorway of the set as the two rivals for his affection conversed just feet ahead of him. This same direction was later mirrored with great meaning by Amneris as she despaired over Radamès being led off to his doomed trial. Many of the character’s emotional low-points saw Lee ending his phrases with a shuddering quality in his voice that made his woes not only more physical, but more palpable as well.
In the title role, Kristin Lewis succeeded in capturing the tragic beauty of the Ethiopian princess in what has been her debut run with the Metropolitan Opera. The first hints of this were heard in the delicate leaps found in her opening lines, and the way her presence and voice changed the dynamic between Radamès and Amneris for the trio “Vieni, o diletta, appressati.” Her interactions with each of the cast often left herself at their mercy, but Lewis found ways to keep these exchanges nuanced and compelling.
With Roberto Frontali’s Amonasro, Lewis was not only sent reeling in horror by his demands. But she then froze before slowly staggering backwards towards him, as if against her will while her father explained the grim necessity of bloodshed to save their people.
Her heated confrontation with Dolora Zajick’s Amneris ended with Aida making a small, heart-wrenching exit, and the news of Radamès’ betrothal in the next scene made Lewis nearly sick with grief. As Aida and Radamès await death in the final scene, a number of Lewis’ lines seemed to drop in power, likely to signify the dwindling air supply of the tomb. Lewis and Lee’s harmonies in “O terra, addio,” were highly touching, and reverberated with a tender love that would softly transcend the despair of their impending death.
As Amonasro, Roberto Frontali carried an air of danger as he sought to wreak vengeance on the Egyptians. The declamatory tones of his voice went well with the blaring horns from the orchestra as he spoke of the Ethiopians being razed. While Frontali’s charge lasted through nearly all of his time on stage, only when he attempted to kill Ramfis was this energy interrupted. After Frontali fluidly executed the spin which let him take Radamès’ sword and position himself in front of the priest, he paused with his arm in the air just long enough to give the impression that he was waiting to be disarmed, or at the very least that he wouldn’t strike immediately despite his boiling blood.
As the Egyptian princess Amneris, Dolora Zajick was commanding and irresistible. Her affectionate probing past the dutiful façade of Radamès in her first appearance quickly turned to suspicion at Aida’s arrival. Her chorus number “Chi mai fra gli inni e i plausi,” saw Zajick reclining luxuriously before letting her voice soar over those of her gathered attendants. Her phrase “fill me with rapture, my love,” was delivered with an ecstatic sonority which seemed to melt away.
One of the evening’s highest points came in the Act four judgment scene where Amneris could only watch helplessly as Radamès is sentenced to death; his resolved silence at the priests’ questioning drew poignant suffering from Zajick. When the trial was concluded, Zajick was met with nearly show-stopping applause. Her final moments in the opera saw Amneris bearing a stoic demeanor to mask her broken heart over the certain death of Radamès. Her prayers to Isis had a distant quality as she solemnly repeated “pace… pace… pace…”
The second cast of this season’s run of “Aida” performed commendably, with the artists breathing exuberant life into their roles. While Frisell’s production is by no means new, it stands the test of time in being able to immerse audiences into the exotic setting. Despite its highly-traditional nature, the artists proved Monday night that there is still novelty and wonder that can be brought forth from one of the most prominent members of the operatic canon.
It should be interesting to see what replaces it in a few years time. It will be a tough act to follow.