Night at the Museum: Uneven cast has Met’s “Aida” looking its age

Tue Jan 08, 2019 at 2:05 pm
Dolora Zajick is Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera. File photo: Marty Sohl

Dolora Zajick is Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera.
File photo: Marty Sohl

Verdi’s Aida has been a staple of the Metropolitan Opera’s repertory for ages, though in recent years uninspired casting has too often made it seem like an afterthought. With a new production rumored for the start of the 2020–2021 season, the company has been lavishing its attention on what could be the final laps for the long-running Sonja Frisell production. After a starry fall run, a spring slate was booked with Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role starting Monday night. 

Unfortunately, Radvanovsky withdrew weeks ago for an unspecified personal reason, leaving the lineup without much of its punch. Filling in was American soprano Kristin Lewis, who did not seem up for the challenge in her company debut. Her voice was too small for the house to begin with, but moreover it was too light for the role, with little body or color anywhere in her range. Her strange, over-fussy phrasing, led her to swallow words at the beginning of a line: “O patria mia” was difficult to follow, as her emphasis landed in all the wrong places.

Dolora Zajick was more solid as Aida’s rival, Amneris, though it took her some time to warm up. In the first two acts, her voice sounded small and weary save in her chest. By the start of Act Four, she was in her best form, singing with power and conviction as she raged and pleaded with the gods to spare Radamès’s life. 

Tenor Yonghoon Lee was the star of the night as Radamès: the role of the heroic young general is perfectly suited to show off the best qualities of his voice, demanding above all ringing power and clarity, which Lee delivered. “Celeste Aida” is a murderous aria to start an opera with, and his delivery of it was admirable; but it was in the final two acts that he really let loose, his clarion tenor blasting through the orchestra.

As Monday’s Amonasro, Roberto Frontali showed a lean, muscular baritone, dark in color, bringing menace to his portrayal without any hint of mustachio-twirling. Vitalij Kowaljow offered a powerful, gristly Ramfis, though lacked the stage presence necessary to terrify as the high priest. 

Solomon Howard has yet to sing any role at the Met but the King, which he now effortlessly inhabits with his booming voice and imposing energy. Leah Hawkins showed a soprano of immense weight and dark power, delivering the Priestess’s rapt prayer from off stage. And Kevin Ray made an admirable house debut filling in at the last minute as the Messenger, offering a creamy, bright tenor.

Nicola Luisotti led a finely detailed reading of the score, taking deliberate tempos but never losing the pace. He achieved airtight ensemble and ideal balance, letting the orchestra show off its power to fill the size of the piece without ever covering the singers. The chorus was exceptional, particularly in the invocation of Ptah, contrasting the manic intensity of the priestesses with the pleading warmth of the priests.

Frisell’s massive 1988 production has never seemed more campy than on Monday. All of the lead actors, with the exception of Ramfis and the King, threw themselves violently around the stage, in grand gestures that elicited audible chuckles from the house. The horses in the triumphal scene, never especially well behaved, were in rare form, threatening to make an early exit. If we are indeed seeing the final performances of the Frisell Aida this spring, Monday’s ending was perhaps poetic: as the stage elevator lowered during the final bars, a thump was heard, followed by a rattling sound that persisted until the curtain came down on the production, clattering and clanking its way off into eternity.

Aida runs through March 7 at the Metropolitan Opera. Sondra Radvanovsky returns for the final three performances, beginning February 28, with Olesya Petrova as Amneris, Aleksandrs Antonenko as Radamès, and Quinn Kelsey as Amonasro.

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