Verdi’s love triangle extravaganza was broadcast today (Oct 24, 2009) live throughout the known world in HD. This performance was one of the series most successful. The singing and orchestral playing were responsible for the emotional energy that flowed from the 1109th performance by the Met of an opera which everyone knows, but which requires great voices and a great orchestra to succeed.
Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana made her Met debut in 2001 as Kundry in Parsifal. She then sang Eboli (a mezzo role) in Verdi’s Don Carlo. She is now a full time soprano. She’s currently alternating Isolde with Aida at different venues. She has an edgy voice that occasionally is shrill in its high register. Nevertheless, she managed to float some lovely high notes though there’s a break in her voice when she makes the transition from loud to soft. If Zinka Milanov was the ultimate Aida and Leontyne Price was the next level down, Urmana is one further stage below, but she still is very good.
Tenor Johan Botha was about as good as you can get as Radames. A heldentenor his voice is the same type and quality as was Ben Heppner’s before Otello knocked him out. Botha has survived that test having negotiated a run of Otello’s at the Met (as well as elsewhere) last season. He has a large and smoothly produced sound which he can modulate easily. His solution to the high B-flat at the end of “Celeste Aida” was to hit the note full voice and then to take a diminuendo which was effective without being spectacular. His singing thereafter was full voiced and nuanced. At 44 he’s got the heavy Verdi and Wagner roles to himself if he’s able to maintain his current level for a while.
Delora Zajick has been the queen of the Verdi mezzos for the past 20 years. She’s still unrivaled. She did everything during the Judgment Scene except detonate a hydrogen bomb. Beautiful sound, ringing high notes, and enough volume to jump start the hearing aid business, opera lovers will be talking about her for generations.
Carlo Guelfi’s baritone was tired and not bright. A journeyman performance at best. Roberto Scandiuzzi had a woolly sound that’s not particularly appealing. Amazingly, Adam Laurence Herskowitz was stressed by the Messenger’s brief appearance. Stefan Kocán did little with the thankless role of the King.
Daniele Gatti conducted well though I think the Met’s orchestra could do the opera just about as well as it did without a conductor. Gatti failed the tympani test in Act 2. Near the beginning of his solo Amonasro sings “Morte invan cercai (Death I vainly sought). This line is immediately punctuated by a thud on the drum that emphasizes the starkness of what he’s saying. This note should strike like a thunderbolt. Instead we got a hiccup. Any real Verdi conductor should understand what’s needed here.
Donald Palumbo’s chorus, as is the norm, was brilliant. Verdi’s management of large forces is beyond praise. When Aida get’s a chorus and orchestra of the very first rank an audience can understand why Benjamin Britten thought that Verdi in his later works had discovered the secret of perfection. It’s easy to take this war horse, chestnut, bromide, old saw, etc for granted given the usual pedestrian performance that’s usually encountered. But when you get great singers on a great stage the unique genius that conjured this work glows like a blue diamond.
The Met’s staging of Aida is more than 20years old, but it still looks great. The house’s super-sized stage is perfect for the opera’s epic scenes. The staging was suitably scaled for the piece’s intimate conclusion. Alexei Ratmansky was brought in to redo the choreography. The result was interesting and appealing but one doesn’t go to Aida for the dancing.
Not only were the opera’s great climaxes realized, but it’s poignant and gentle ending was just as well done. An outstanding performance. Just one final note. The three protagonists, especially Botha, were animated ads for the metabolic syndrome. I fear for their continued good health absent a dietary readjustment.