Saturday November 5, 2016 matinee - This was not a great performance of AIDA, but I thoroughly enjoyed it - and I even stayed til the end. The House was packed, and the audience mostly attentive, despite one persistent cougher, and two cellphone intrusions - both at the worst possible moments. The endless intermissions really are a serious detriment to Met performances these days.
The prelude was gorgeous; during the last few seasons, I have been thinking more highly of Marco Armiliato's conducting than in the past. His approach used to seem rather rushed and 'noisy' to me, but now he seems to have developed more of a feeling for the subtle moment, and for maintaining the overall arc of an opera musically. Today, the maestro seemed to be more intent on creating an atmosphere rather than just slogging along; this surely accounted in large part for the overall success of the afternoon. The orchestra played very well, with many fine solo bits, and the chorus sang with fresh vigor - and a sense of mystery in the Temple and Tomb scenes.
From his opening lines, Dmitry Belosselskiy as Ramfis had real vocal immediacy. His big voice was matched in decibels by that of Marco Berti, singing Radames. Mr. Berti is an erratic singer but a generous one. His "Celeste Aida", not pitch-perfect and sometimes a bit cumbersome in phrasing, was unstintingly and passionately loud. After the mega-sound produced by the basso and tenor, Ekaterina Gubanova's first lines as Amneris seemed a bit 'small' by comparison. Her voice blossomed as the opera progressed, though it is a shade too light for this role in this house. She tended to go cautiously with the chest voice, which can be very effectively used in Amneris's music. With Liudmyla Monastyrska's entrance, the opera's romantic triangle was in play. The soprano has a large, vibrant voice which she manages for the most part to keep under control. She thoroughly dominated the trio, capping if off with a big high-B.
Soloman Howard gave good, sturdy singing as The King, and Ronald Naldi as the Messenger actually made something out of his message. The ensemble following the announcement of Radames being the choice of the gods to lead Egypt's army against the Ethopians was excitingly sung by all, and underscored by a dramatic build-up of energy from the pit. Ms. Monastyrska's top was exciting, and Mr. Berti refused to be out-sung.
The soprano commenced "Ritorna vinicitor!" a split second after the final note of the ensemble; this forward impetus kept the drama well in focus. Her singing of the aria was a high point of the performance: big-scale, passionate vocalism, with upper notes especially powerful, and a dazzling B-flat at "Ah! Sventurata...che dissi?" was superbly sustained and flamed into the great space of the hall with resplendent thrust. Then, by contrast, Ms. Monastyrska drew us into Aida's internal conflict by using a slight hesitancy in the flow of the words. Scaling the voice back in "I sacri nomi..." the soprano showed fine control, and touching expressive colours at "Numi, pieta..." Tiny, fleeting vagaries of pitch during the aria were as nothing compared to the sweep and rightness of her singing.
The duo of cougher and cellphone sought to destroy the evocative mood of the opening of the Temple scene, but Jennifer Check's gentle invocation as the High Priestess (in the soprano's 200th Met performance) helped steer the music forward. The harpist was having a perfect afternoon, and some really lovely playing from the Met's wind soloists made the ballet interlude truly pleasing. Mr. Belosselskiy's grandly-intoned "Numi custode e vindice..." launched the concluding ensemble most impressively, and Mr. Berti joined in with thrusting power: their voices, rising over the chorus, rang thru the hall. "This is such a great opera!", I scrawled in my Playbill.
The interminable intermission nearly did me in, and when things did finally start up again, Ms. Gubanova's three cries of "Ah, vieni...vien amor mio!" were not very invitingly sung. But once Ms. Monastyrska entered, the scene of their confrontation began to heat up, and soon both singers were blazing away. Ms. Gubanova's avoidance of chest voice left some dramatic phrases un-punctuated; Ms. Monastyrska unleashed another thrilling B-flat at "Pieta!" and was very moving in "...del mio soffrir.." and in her final murmured "...pieta!" which reverberated with the pain of lost hope.
The scene change to the great square for Radames's triumph evoked applause; it's important to remember that, while we may be jaded, there are always people seeing AIDA for the first time. If this coup de theatre gives them a thrill and something to remember, so much the better.
Again Maestro Armiliato seemed freshly invested in this opera: the ballet music was lovingly played and well-detailed; the dancers (and Alexei Ratmansky's choreography) won a strong round of applause. As Amonasro, Mark Delavan's somewhat boxy sound took a moment to shake free; though it's a voice that won't please everyone, he sang with power and commitment in a role that by now is second-nature to him. By "Ma tu, Re..." he was on an impressive roll, and always audible thru the density of the ensembles where lesser kings tend to get swamped. Soloman Howard and Dmitry Belosselskiy traded basso thunderbolts to fine effect; Mr. Berti cut thru the massed sound of orchestra, soloists, and chorus with passionate vigor, whilst Ms. Monastyrska's sailing voice shone overall.
Another mind-numbing intermission; I read the Playbill yet again. I really need to remember to bring a book to the opera with me.
Maestro Armiliato and the Met players did some more sonic mood-painting with the fluted introduction to the Nile scene. In their exchange, Ms. Gubanova and Mr. Belosselskiy created a vocal prelude to the impending drama: a half-hour that would turn each character's world upside down. From "Qui Radames verrà..." Ms. Monastyrska established both a vocal and dramatic atmosphere in voicing Aida's resignation and despair. If her vibrato intruded a bit at times, overall she used a lovely scaling-back of the voice for "O cieli azzuri..." and pulled off some beautifully floated effects. She successfully ascended to the treacherous high-C and then produced a shimmering high-A to start the aria's little 'coda', touching on chest voice for "...mai piu ti rivedro..." before the final rise to a serenely sustained concluding high-A.
An urgent sense of drama shot thru the duet of Aida and Amonasro; using the time-worn device of the parental guilt-trip, the king convinces his daughter to save the Ethiopian people by tricking her lover. Much subtle baiting from Mr. Delavan, and Ms. Monastyrska was very effective with chest voice on "...e poi morir!"; the baritone's build-up to "Intendi?" was convincing, causing the soprano to re-coil and setting up Mr. Delavan's tirade. The soprano's resistance is futile: Delavan scores a knockout punch with his powerful "...dei Faraoni tu sei la schiava!", the high note grandly sustained. Ms. Monastyrska recovered with a noble but futile plea ("...schiava...non sono...") before the baritone plays his last card with a moving "Pensa che un popolo...", and then the soprano's anguished "...quanto mi costi..." marks her defeat.
Mr. Monastyrska begins her quest to draw Radames into her father's plan, but when she comes to the point of suggesting they actually flee, Mr. Berti, aghast. He literally yells "Fuggire?" The soprano's voice now takes on a seductive sheen as she softens her timbre for a lovely description of their impending "...estasi beata..."; Ms. Monastyrska sounds really lyrical with a final upward float. Radames gives in; their little 'stretta' is wild and woolly: no vocal holds barred. The betrayal becomes clear to Radames, but he stands fast as Aida and Amonasro urge him to flee: big, unfettered Berti moment at "Sacerdote! Io resto a te!"
In the opening recitative and narrative of the Judgement scene, Ms. Gubanova excelled with urgent, well-projected singing. The clarinet sets the scene for the big duet of princess and traitor. The mezzo continues to shy away from chest voice, and the tenor resorts to some bellowing; Amneris's shocked "Morire?!" ("Do you want to die?") lacked thrust. Berti plunges in: the voice massive and the tops huge; Ms. Gubanova in response is sometimes covered by the orchestra. Lovely tenderness from Berti on hearing that Aida is still alive...somewhere. Ms. Gubanova's "Ohime!...morir mi sento..." is very fine, especially her fading final note on "...io stesso lo gettai..."
The priests open the trial with a peacefully resonant hymn. The Gubanova voice lacks the ultimate punch for this big scene; Belosselskiy's third indictment of Radames in answered not by the tenor but by a ringing cellphone. Gubanova somewhat compensates with emphatic diction for what's missing in terms of sheer vocal power; she summoned up a strong and long climactic high-A.
An attempt at lyricism by Mr. Berti at he started of the Tomb scene was somewhat compromised by questionable pitch; Ms. Monastyrska's appearance from the recesses of the tomb set things to rights. After the soprano's floaty singing of "O terra addio...", Mr. Berti decided to try to match her for gentle dynamics and sweetness. He succeeded. Together they achieved some really nice moments of soft singing and sweet rises to the top; Maestro Armiliato gave wonderful support from the pit. As the radiance of the high violins faded into ether, Ms. Gubanova's plea for peace was heard as if from a fading dream.
The audience, who had shown little enthusiasm along the way, rightly gave the singers their due at curtain call. Ms. Monastyrskas seemed the favorite among the cast, and deservedly so.
The long intermissions provide ample opportunity to read all the Playbill articles...several times over. The conclusion of writer Susan Youens's excellent article on AIDA provided this quote - a spot-on summation of what makes this opera so special:
"But Verdi had a heartbreaking habit in his late tragedies of pulling the camera away from the gigantic and public to focus instead on the most intimate matters of love and death, and he does so here. The work's final moments, with the chorus above the tomb chanting "Immenso Fthà!" and Amneris pleading in anguished monotone for Radames's soul, are like none other in operatic history."