Opera Review: Heavenly ‘Aida’? Maybe, Maybe Not

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Triumphal Scene from Aida (metoperafamily.org)
Triumphal Scene from Aida (metoperafamily.org)

I have previously seen the Metropolitan Opera’s 1988 production of Aida in an earlier incarnation. I kept this fact in mind as I listened to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of December 15, which was also a Live in HD transmission.

Starring French-born superstar Roberto Alagna as Radames, it included the network debut of Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title role, Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Amneris, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Aida’s father Amonasro, Slovakian bass Štefan Kocán as the high priest Ramfis, and the Budapest-born Miklós Sebestyén as the King of Egypt. The Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi presided over the proceedings and was the only Italian within earshot.

As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Monsieur Alagna, whose distinctive timbre and incisive enunciation of the text have enlivened many a romantic role. The warrior Radames was no exception. Although this is considered a heavier than normal assignment for him, Alagna adopted a “less is more, if not better” approach to the part, which worked wonders in the opera’s opening number, “Celeste Aida.”

Robert Alagna as Radames (stallercenter.org)
Roberto Alagna as Radames (stallercenter.org)

The tenor even took the final pianissimo B-flat as Verdi had intended, repeating the words “Vicino al sol” at a lower octave. Marvelous! When the final scene came around, instead of bellowing out “Si schiude il ciel” to the rafters (as most tenors would do), Alagna floated his top note on a delicate filigree of sound – a most welcome close.

I’ve seen Alagna on other occasions as well, i.e., in Verdi’s Don Carlos, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a film version of Tosca, and a Public Television broadcast of Puccini’s La Rondine. Too bad he’s never been as popular at the Met as he’s been with other international venues. He’s a terrific actor who plunges headlong into his parts with passion and assurance (see the Met’s hot-and-heavy version of Bizet’s Carmen with Latvian mezzo Elina Garanča, if you don’t believe me). While his slightly leaner tone is nowhere near the brawny muscularity of a Del Monaco, Tucker or Corelli, his ability to invest these works with his own personal stamp leaves no doubt that Alagna has the Italianate style under his belt and in his blood.

Where the debuting Monastyrska was concerned, I’m not so sure. I had a chance encounter with the Kiev-born native on a recent PBS telecast of the 2012 Richard Tucker Gala, where the soprano was called upon to deliver the goods in the fiendishly difficult “Vieni t’affreta,” from Verdi’s Macbeth. Her physical assumption of Lady Macbeth, along with the accompanying cabaletta, left much to be desired. The slightly off-kilter coloratura was generally acceptable and accurate, but it was her onstage deportment that I objected to. For here was the mustache-twirling villainess of yore, brought to melodramatic life in an unashamedly over-the-top performance. Monastyrska needed a firmer directorial hand in relaying the malevolent nature of Shakespeare’s most fearsome protagonist but without the amateur-night theatrics, thank you.

Liudmila Monasturska (pacslo.org)
Liudmyla Monastyrska (pacslo.org)

As Aida, one of opera’s richest and most rewarding roles (and whose past proponents boasted such talents as Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, and Aprile Millo) let’s say that Monastyrska’s portrayal crossed the finish line intact, but without having moved this listener. Granted, I was missing her visual contribution; still, from what I heard on the air – in particular, her Act II battle with burnished mezzo (and fellow Slav) Olga Borodina – there was a decided lack of fire in the belly. Neither of these two artists raised the temperature to any noticeable degree, which was surprising in such a such-fire combination.

Madame Borodina did score a triumph in the Act IV Judgment Scene. But then again, most powerhouse mezzos of her variety manage to make a vocal meal out of this sequence. Why it took so long for the sparks to fly remains baffling.

Moving on to the male contingent, Gagnidze’s big and blustery Amonasro was inconsequential. Such has always been the case with this singer, whose brutish Baron Scarpia in the previous season’s new production of Tosca employed more of the same tactics and weight. Not surprisingly, Gagnidze’s a lot more convincing in Russian opera, for instance in the Met’s recent Khovanshchina broadcast which Borodina also co-starred in. However, I find him out of his natural element in the Italian repertoire. Kocán’s High Priest made a pleasant enough noise, as did Sebestyén’s booming King, but with none of the idiomatic flair or requisite authority these roles demanded.

Good, strong voices are fine and dandy for what they are worth, but there’s no excuse for mushy diction, the ultimate bone of contention for this cast. In sum, with Alagna’s lone exception none of the performers sounded remotely Mediterranean, a major deficit in such a familiar work as Aida.

As for Maestro Luisi, there were simply too many shifting tempos within a relatively short time span for him to make any lasting impression. Take the Grand March, which starts off Scene ii of Act II: too fast at one point, then too slow at another; the ballet music flew by in a flash without making any particular dramatic statement, along with other passages that merely slipped by unnoticed.

Some conductors love to linger over this score – the delicate violin figures in “Celeste Aida” can be downright pleasurable, if played with just the right touch of ardor (see Herbert von Karajan’s indispensable Decca/London set from the late 1950s, for an object lesson in how to lead this miraculous piece). But here, they barely registered on the emotional meter – a disappointingly bland showing. And finally, the Met Opera Chorus (so crucial in this work) sailed through their task with flying colors, thanks to chorus master Donald Palumbo.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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