Stoyanova and de León deliver gripping vocalism in Met’s “Aida”
For such a staple of the repertoire, Verdi’s grand Egyptian tragedy Aida has been a struggle for the Metropolitan Opera in recent years. The opera is a difficult one to cast, and the company’s revivals have often suffered, putting journeyman singers in demanding lead roles.
The revival cast that opened on Thursday night offered a welcome change in that trend, even if it boasts little in the way of star power. In the title role was Krassimira Stoyanova, a Bulgarian soprano who has been only an occasional presence at the Met. This was an impressive vocal performance, sporting a laser focus in the top and middle of her range, and a light smolder in her chest voice. “Ritorna vincitor!” was sung with gripping intensity, bringing the evening to life after a slow start. This aria in fact overshadowed the far more famous lament “O patria mia” from Act III, which was also emotionally effective and intelligently sung, though a little cautious, never opening up to her full power.
The punishing role of Radamès is not an easy one for a debut, yet Jorge de León made an admirable first bow. “Celeste Aida” is about as cruel a start as exists in any major role, a demanding aria that marks the tenor’s first appearance onstage. De León’s rendition was a little blunt in its phrasing, but that he could produce so strong and ringing a sound right out of the gate was impressive nonetheless, ending the aria on a long, clarion B-flat. He tired noticeably as the night wore on, yet saved enough energy to give a passionate account of his final duet with Stoyanova, his shining tone mixing beautifully with her focused warmth.
From Scarpia to Tonio, George Gagnidze has been called upon to play a number of memorable antagonists on the Met’s stage. His robust, fine-grained baritone was in top form on Thursday and he brought unusual depth to the Ethiopian King Amonasro, avoiding common the temptation to play him as a skulking schemer.
Violeta Urmana returns in this run for yet another tour of duty as Amneris, the haughty heiress presumptive to the Egyptian throne, and Aida’s rival. She seems to save up all her energy, vocal and dramatic, for one crucial episode the extended first scene in Act IV in which she pleads with Radamès to accept her help, and then mourns his grisly fate. Her portrayal here was intensely emotional and strikingly sympathetic, showing her most consistent tone of the evening. Otherwise, she sounded taxed by the role–though there’s still plenty of burning power in her chest voice, her top range is stretched thin and her middle all but disappears.
Another veteran joining the cast is perennial house favorite James Morris as the imperious high priest Ramfis. His voice, too, bears the marks of time, though in his case the strain of year fits the role, leaving a lean bass-baritone that groans with weariness. Morris can’t boom the way he used to, but the tautness of the voice gave his recitation of the charges against Radamès an imposing feel nonetheless.
Morris Robinson’s vocal profile is strikingly similar to James Morris’s, though darker and—at this point—weightier. He brought a grand presence to the stage as the King, with superb vocal power and a firm grasp of the role’s lowest notes. The manic intensity of Jennifer Johnson Cano’s taut mezzo was captivating in her brief but memorable offstage turn as the priestess, singing the entrancing prayer to Ptah.
Daniele Rustioni made his first appearance in the Met’s pit on Thursday. The young Italian conductor had trouble corralling some larger scenes, and was out of step with individual singers here and there. Nonetheless, it was a promising debut as he showed strong dramatic sense, fitting the score to the demands of each scene, and managed the tricky ballet of the triumph scene with exemplary precision. The Met chorus sounded as rich as ever, and the orchestra brought their best, the onstage brass positively gleaming during the triumphal march.
Sonja Frisell’s 1988 production is still able to awe its audiences all these years later, as Gianni Quaranta’s enormous sets stretch the limits of the Met’s gargantuan stage. Sadly, the action onstage often fails to measure up: the choreographed rituals create a sense of magic that is quickly undone by the aimless flailing of the actors, under the supervision of revival director Stephen Pickover. The Met desperately needs to employ stage directors for repertory productions who can encourage actors to work off of each other instead of offering them decades-old blocking: far too often, this sort of canned mugging throws a generous coat of dust over even the most impressive stagings.
Aida runs through April 20 at the Metropolitan Opera. Riccardo Massi sings the role of Radamès and Soloman Howard sings the King beginning on April 10. Latonia Moore appears as Aida on April 20. metopera.org