Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: Aida

Metropolitan Opera’s Legendary Production Says Goodbye with Mixed Results

By Francisco Salazar

Thirty-four years ago, Sonja Frisell’s monumental “Aida” production premiered at the Met to tremendous success. Not only did it become one of the company’s most beloved productions due to its elegant and epic sets that recreated Egyptian architecture. The production had horses, large crowds of people, and extravagant costumes. It was what operagoers wanted to see in opera and to this day continues to receive ovations.

But it’s 2022 and the production is having its final run at the Met and right off the bat, I must admit I have a lot of mixed feelings about the retirement of this production. Truth be told, I have never been a fan. I have never liked the awkward costumes nor the stiff blocking. I have always found that the revivals of “Aida” except for one or two have always been routine and most of the casts have been gobbled up by the gigantic sets.

But at the same time, I have always felt that the sets, especially on this night on Dec. 13, are gorgeous and unique and with a little bit of creativity from a revival director, and new costumes, this rendition doesn’t have to feel tired nor routine. Nor does this production have to go. It’s a production like many in the traditional landscape of opera that with a new perspective can feel alive. I have seen this in the Met’s “I Puritani” production where all it takes is a great diva and her creativity to the blocking to add excitement without needing to make any other scene changes. I’ve seen it in the Met’s “La Bohème,” which also benefits from unique performers bringing their charisma and magic to the stage. It doesn’t always work and when it doesn’t, there can be a dull effect (most of my experiences with this “Aida” production). But when it works, it can feel more genuine and exciting than the more safe “modernization” or simply “change for the sake of change” approach that has often come to the Met under general manager Peter Gelb.

And yet, during this production, I couldn’t help but feel that the production did feel routine and tired and that management’s desire to change it felt justified.

Not so Epic

If I had to describe the overall feeling of this performance it would be stiff and slow. To be fair, things have been tough at the Met of late. The cyberattack shut down the company’s main communication systems and forced a complete reshuffle of how things operate. Tickets were sold on other websites and seating was on a first-come-first-serve basis. So things didn’t quite feel comfortable at all. That this affected the company on the whole, there is no doubt, and so some allowance can be made for this performance overall.

But from the two 40-minute intermissions each side of 35-minute acts, to the robotic staging of the large ensembles, it often felt like this production had more to give with everyone involved stifled and smothered in some way. There was even an emblematic moment during the big triumphal scene where the lively horses looked extremely uncomfortable and constantly made signs that they wanted to move (major props to the handlers for keeping them calm) even though they had to stand still.  

And then there were the costumes, always a source of frustration for me. The supernumeraries wore wigs that looked incredibly unfit while the leads often looked weighed down by their outfits. The women’s chorus, who were dressed in white cloaks and Egyptian wigs seemed outdated and the male supernumeraries came in with a white cloth that looked unfinished. Something about it all felt a bit rushed.

A lot of this can be overlooked, as I noted earlier, when the leading artists come in and take control. This wasn’t one of those nights.

Uneven Leads

The leading performers of this evening were a mixed bag. It started with Michelle Bradley, singing the title role after Latonia Moore canceled all of her scheduled performances, following the opening night.

Bradley possesses a beautiful and potent voice coupled with an incredible stage presence. However, her titanic soprano sounded uneven and lacking in flexibility and her characterization of the titular character was somewhat lacking.  

Her “Ritorna Vincitor” began with strained top notes and choppy phrasing. Then in the “Numi pieta,” she rushed through the section. While she did deliver some beautiful pianissimo lines, there were times where she cut off those lines short and sounded a bit out of breath.

During the duet with Amneris, Bradley showed some fierce sound though there was a general lack of spontaneity in her reactions to the scene; it all felt very planned. To be fair to Bradley, she was performing with a new Amneris after two performances with a different singer. But that lack of chemistry dulled the tension of one of the opera’s greatest scenes. At the end of the duet, when she sang the reprisal of “Numi pieta,” the sound was a bit squeezed. These moments were all the more frustrating because a few moments later, she held her final note out with tremendous authority. And what’s more, the ensuing scene saw Bradley at her best as she sang with potent power and cut through the entire orchestra and chorus. 

But then comes arguably the most challenging scene for the soprano in this opera – the Nile scene. The soprano must traverse emotional extremes. Once again, it wasn’t always there. Her “O Patria Mia” showcased a gorgeous tone especially in “O fresche valli, o queto asil beato, Che un dì promesso dall’amor mi fu” where we got to hear the hushed and subtle tones that Bradley can produce. However as she had to reach the higher parts of her voice and attempted to sustain a piano and mezzo forte sound, the voice sounded strained and squeezed. Her climactic high C had some intonation issues and when she began a higher phrase with a piano sound she quickly cut it off. And that was most evident when she ended the aria. She started the final note pianissimo before crescendoing to a forte; however, she abruptly cut it off.

The staging and performance choices of the ensuing scene with Amonasro created an awkwardness in the scene with Bradley seemingly looking away from baritone Quinn Kelsey almost the entire time. But that said, her voice exploded with power and you could sense the fear during the lines “Ciel! mio Padre!” There was passionate yearning in her “Rivedrò le foreste imbalsamate” and terror, both in her voice and on her face, as Kelsey’s Amonasro, cursed her. Her “Orrore!” and subsequent “Che mi consigli tu? No! no! giammai!” only enhanced this feeling of pain, her “pietas” and “Ahs!” were true pleas that really resonated emotionally.

But in the second half of the duet, where Verdi slows the tempo and where Aida pleas with her father, Bradley sounded uncomfortable with the tempo. Her “Padre, a costoro schiava non soon…” was immaculately sung but lacked that same energy and passion from the preceding section.

That disconnect that ended the duet was also present in her duet with her tenor Brian Jadge. Unfortunately, throughout the night there was no chemistry between the two singers and while Bradley sang nicely, the tone continuously lost brightness. The higher notes and the pianissimo extensions were choppy and the high notes were strained and had intonation issues. Toward the final trio with Amonasro, her voice seemed tired and the resonance was also lost.

Speaking of Jagde, the tenor also had a mixed evening as Radamès. Over the past years, he has become a fixture with the company as he possesses a potent voice with a bright sound. It is a rare tenor voice that is not common at this New York house and a welcome one. 

The tenor can deliver the stentorian sound and cut through the orchestra, which was evident during the opening trio “Ohimè! Di guerra fremere” and during the large concertatos “Su! del Nilo al sacro lido” and “Gloria in Egitto.” His voice shined with power and authority. Vocally, he was undoubtedly a proud and powerful hero in these moments. That strength and muscularity worked during the heroic entrance “Pur ti riveggo mia dolce Aida” and in the “Sì, fuggiam da queste mura” where he delivered bright, sustained, and resonant high notes. His duet with Amneris also benefited from the robust sound as it expressed a sense of desperation and defiance. In his opening “Di mie discolpe i giudici,” Jadge showed a vibrant middle voice that while sometimes had some choppy phrases, easily flowed into his higher tessitura.

While Jadge had these thrilling moments there was an unevenness in his performance. For one he lacked chemistry with Bradley which made for an awkward Act three and Act four duet, both blocking-wise and vocally. And speaking of the stage blocking, it seemed as if Jadge had been told to stand in the same position throughout the first half of the opera, which amounted to the singer looking a bit lost on stage.

And then there was sometimes a lack of nuance for many of Verdi’s more lyrical lines. “Celeste Aida” is perhaps one of the hardest arias for any tenor as it is not only at the beginning of the opera but it requires the artist to be immediately able to shape the lyrical aria with flexibility. The tenor must immediately express himself as the galant warrior and tender lover. Jadge demonstrated immaculate high notes but seemed to have a hard time with the legato line. The tone seemed to maintain the same dynamic and many of the lines sounded a bit choppy. He also sounded uncomfortable with the tempi, often finding himself ahead of the orchestra. 

Things were similarly sloppy during the Act three duet with Aida. The lyrical section “Sovra una terra estrania,” which begins with a more lyrical line and slowly builds to a more climatic and anguished tone before reverting to the softer tones, also lacked a wealth of dynamics. It didn’t help that his and Bradley’s voices didn’t match in any way. In the final act which begins with “La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse…,” Jadge did shape the opening lines with a smoother and hushed tone that finally displayed a very different color palette. It finally gave us an introspective Radamès. But that was quickly overtaken by his more heroic tone in “O Terra Addio” which, despite being consistently marked piannissimo in the score, sounded forte throughout.    

In the role of Amneris, Anita Rachvelishvili was returning to the Met following a series of canceled productions over the past year. The mezzo has been open about her struggles after giving birth and this was just the second production that the mezzo sang since she returned to the stage. Rachvelishvili continues to be one of the most exciting performers in the business and on this return, she gave it her all, displaying an imposing personality in her scene with Aida in Act two and even seemingly dominating the entire moment as she relished every insult at Bradley’s Aida. The Act four scene with Radamès brought out the mezzo’s despair and her desperation in trying to save her beloved. You could see her dominance crumble on the stage as she begged Van Horn’s Ramfis for “pieta.” In her final moments on stage during the final duet, Rachvelishvili’s face conveyed pain and loss as she sang the repeated “paces,” each time with more resignation.

Then there were the extremes of her voice. Rachvelishvili dug into her chest voice producing very resonant and gritty tones, especially in the duet with Aida and in her duet with Radamès. You could hear it in the phrases “Dalla sorte che t’aspetta?” and “De’ miei pianti la vendetta, Or dal ciel si compirà.” During these duets, she relished the lower tones and she shined. 

But unfortunately, it was not enough. Amneris’ tessitura is asked to get up to the highest reaches of the mezzo voice and this is where Rachvelishvili sounded most uncomfortable. In the duet with Radamès, Amneris has two climactic high B flats on the lines “ciel si compirà.” Rachvelishvili never truly reached those notes and instead she produced a raspy sound and quickly cut the phrase short. While I never make much of high notes, here Verdi’s music drives towards these notes as they are Amneris’ plea to Radamès. Without them, the music loses momentum. And that is what happened throughout the duet. The same could be said at the end of her scene with the final “Anatema su voi,” which was also cut short. In Act two, Rachvelishvili’s “Ah! Vieni, amor mio, m’inebria, Fammi beato il cor!” was sung with hesitation as the opening higher notes seemed to have a slight wobble and lacked flexibility. Still, the mezzo tried to phrase with delicacy, and with each repeat of this phrase, the tone seemed to warm up and obtain a lighter tone.

For all the mezzo’s mishaps on this evening, she did have one incredibly strong moment and that was her “Ohime!..morir mi sento.” Here she sang with nuance and introspection. Rachvelishvili phrased it with care and some gorgeous tones. Once again she took advantage of her chest voice to really bring out the pain of her Amneris and show her vulnerability.

Extraordinary Evening

But let’s end on a more positive note – Quinn Kelsey. The baritone seems to be singing some of his best performances of late, following an unforgettable “Rigoletto” earlier this season. On this evening he was reprising his acclaimed Amonasro and sang with the abandon and intensity that was often missing elsewhere. His opening phrases in Act two, “Quest’assisa ch’io vesto vi dica, Che il mio Re, la mia patria ho difeso” were filled with force and vigor as he seized control of the scene. His lines in the final concertato “Fa cor: la tua patria, I lieti eventi aspetta,” were sung with such clear diction that you could feel Amonasro’s aggressive cunning.

But his big moment came in Act three in his great duet with Aida. This Amonsaro came onto the scene with power and authority. Kelsey moved around Michelle Bradley almost in a snake-like manner and while he did demonstrate some tenderness in his opening phrases, his voice remained authoritative and booming. You always felt there was more beneath the surface and that added tremendous tension to their musical exchange. That something came to the fore as the duet ensued, with Kelsey’s singing more hard-edged; “Su, dunque! sorgete” had a very pronounced staccato and impeccable diction. His “Mia figlia ti chiami” was particularly ominous. Then as he pronounced “Non sei mia figlia! Dei Faraoni tu sei la schiava!,” he emoted the words with vigor, his sound exploding in the hall. In the second half of the duet, the vocal tenderness returned as he sang “Pensa che un popolo, vinto, straziato, Per te soltanto risorger può.”

Kelsey ended the evening with an act of fury as he took Radamès’ sword and sang “Oh rabbia!” While the staging of this moment has often been clumsy in my experiences, Kelsey’s command here added excitement to the scene.

Solid Support

The evening also counted on a solid performance by Christian Van Horn as Ramfis who sang with his trademark robust bass. He came across as a dutiful priest in command of each scene.

In the role of the Priestess, Brittany Olivia Logan sang with a gorgeous tone. However, it was clear the tempos in her solo were too quick, leading her solid legato phrases to sound detached.

As the King, Alexandros Stavrakakis sang with a potent voice, while Matthew Cairns demonstrated a beautiful timbre as the messenger.

In the pit, Paolo Carignani led a swift Aida. His prelude was lush and relished in beautiful string sounds. In many of the arias, he accompanied the singers expertly, giving them the space to shape their lines. That said, the ensemble work, like the opening trio, the triumphal scene, and the Act one concertato, was sloppy and the conductor fell behind many times, creating unease between the soloists and the orchestra. Then there were the awkward tempi, most notably during “Possente Fthà.” The initial tempo was so fast that it rushed the soloist (Brittany Olivia Logan). But then, during the choral interlude “Tu che dal nulla hai tratto,” he shifted to an abrupt slowdown, making the experience rather jarring and creating unevenness. The score itself, marked Andante con moto, has no indication of a sudden tempo shift, and the tempo marking remains the same until it shifts to Allegretto during the Sacred dance of the priestesses.

In all, the Met’s final run of Sonja Frisell’s “Aida” was not entirely satisfying. Let’s wait and see what the next production has to offer.


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