Wilson’s triumphant Met debut lifts a long night in the desert
How many Aidas is enough? The Metropolitan Opera’s revival, which opened in late October, marked their 1,140th performance of Verdi’s elephantine spectacle Friday night. Surely after the first 1,000 or so, it’s difficult to bring something fresh to an opera and pleasing the crowd becomes the point.
That was the case Friday, with the notable exception of soprano Tamara Wilson’s house debut in the title role. If Aida’s music could have just been distilled into a recital, it would have been a satisfying evening. Instead, one had to keep one’s head above three and three-quarters hours of a stultifying staging and wildly variable singing.
Sonja Frisell’s 1988 production has far outlived the vogue for all things Egyptian, which itself had a pop-culture expiration date in the late 70s. The sets and costumes are well-preserved, but the Las Vegas overkill of everything—the Temple! The statues! The parade!—are exhausting and meaningless. There is already a challenging imbalance in the score between musical drama and cheap Orientalism, and Frisell’s only idea is to bury everything beneath the weight of an infinite number of supernumeraries. And horses.
There were moments of singing that wrenched the music away from the production, but too few. Along with Wilson, mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana and baritone George Gagnidze stepped into the respective roles of Amneris, Aida’s rival, and Amonasro, her father. Both are seasoned pros.
Urmana was underpowered in the first act, and hard to hear in ensembles or when the accompaniment from conductor Marco Armiliato and the orchestra was substantial. But she gradually projected more easily and fully as the night progressed, and from Act III, her vocal and expressive presence were more powerfully projected and she was moving in the final bars. Gagnidze sang with forceful charisma, and his restless presence was refreshing.
Marcello Giordani’s Radames was tough to hear and watch. His tenoris now increasingly woody, with no low register to speak of, he uses portamento and vibrato to find the right pitch and cling to it, and just doesn’t have the endurance for this arduous role. His acting also consists of a weepy emotiveness that comes through his chin and his brow. This is opera singing as a physical contest, like weightlifting, but as long as audiences swoon over his exertions in “Celeste Aida,” he’ll still be cast.
In the middle were basses Dmity Belosselskiy and Soloman Howard, as the priest Ramfis and the King, both singing well albeit with stolid acting. Armiliato is always solid with Verdi and an adoptable colleague, maintaining a consistently admirable pace The orchestra sounded fatigued in the final Act but the playing was mostly fine, especially in the wonderful music for Act III, and the woodwind soloists played beautifully all night.
Amid all this, Wilson was terrific, bringing dramatic seriousness to a beer-art night. She cut through the ostentatiousness of the staging by taking a focused path less travelled. Her understated “Ritorna vincitor!” went against the historic norm, as typified on recordings by Callas, Price and Caballé. Her voice is brighter than most commonly heard in the role, and, though not as resplendent, she makes the melodies sound like malleable platinum.
With a combination of unerring pitch, exacting vibrato, careful dynamics and excellent phrasing, she let the character of Verdi’s lines speak for themselves, rather than forcing her own vocal personality onto them. Her individual presence came through with a consistent, gripping intensity that was clear with every note. The notorious high C in “O patria mia” had a slightly different color than her predominant register, but her quiet approach and sustain were superb. In the context of the clutter and distractions on stage, Wilson’s singing transformed the drudgery of the evening into a mesmerizing experience.
Aida continues through April 20, Oksana Dyka, Marco Berti, Stefan Kocán, Ievgen Orlov and Zeljko Lucic appear as Aida, Radames, Ramfis, the King and Amonasro, with Placido Domingo conducting, starting April 9 metopera.org