Few operas outside of Richard Wagner’s match the grandeur of “Aida,” yet Met conductor Fabio Luisi remarked during Saturday’s HD premiere that Giuseppe Verdi’s opus would be fine without the spectacle. While that may be true of the main plot line, the depth of the characters’ passions would not have generated the opera’s tragic outcome nor its anguished resonance with the audience had the principals been milkmaids and cowherds instead of princesses and generals.
The Metropolitan Opera’s latest performance of Verdi’s masterpiece underscored that distinction time and again. The monumental stage sets that host Renee Fleming said filled 17 trailer trucks when stored and the half dozen live horses and ponies for Egyptian army’s triumphal march assaulted the audience with the notion that this version contained all the majestic features that characterized opera seria during its heyday in the late 18th century.
A project once offered to Verdi’s rival Richard Wagner, Aida reflects the strengths and limitations of its creators. Verdi’s librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni based his plot on the libretto of 18th century poet Metastasio which consists of an illicit love affair between the Egyptian general Radamés and Ethiopian princess Aida, a slave of the Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris who also loves the general. Such characters and plot lines were staples for opera seria audiences who enjoyed seeing their aristocratic concerns and accomplishments reflected in the works they attended. Intended to appeal to Egyptian dignitaries in its Cairo premiere, Aida’s settings and costumes were as historically accurate as French Egyptologist August Mariette could make them. All the grandeur of the artifacts Mariette discovered at Memphis was on full display much as Verdi’s use of opera seria’s overlapping singing technique reveals the characters’ conflicting passions.
Yesterday’s Met performance combined all these elements in a rapturous stew of sonic hysteria. Ukrainian diva Liudmyla Monastyrska and tenor Roberto Alagna stood out as the doomed lovers while frequent Met performer Olga Borodina was equally commanding as the vengeful princess Amneris. George Gagnidze, Stefan Kocan, and Miklos Sebestyen were splendid in leading a cast of several hundred in support. And the staging and musicianship were monumentally impressive as always.
The production’s only shortcoming derives from viewer deju vu. Aside from the fresh and powerful voices of two leads, this version appears virtually indistinguishable from its 2007 incarnation. But when an opera is as scenically ornate and musically sumptuous as this one, criticizing a working formula seems like so much quibbling.