‘Aida’ at the Met, a Big Spectacle With Voices to Match

November 11, 2014 Updated: November 15, 2014

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) wrote “Aida” on commission for the opening of the opera house in Cairo in 1871. Combining spectacle with a tragic love story, it is one of the most popular operas.

The Met’s revival of Sonja Frisell’s 1988 production is visually impressive and musically stirring. As drama, it is somewhat inert.

The plot of “Aida” was created by Auguste Mariette, an archaeologist who was the founder of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, and Camille du Locle, who had worked with Verdi on “Don Carlo.” Antonio Ghislanzoni wrote the libretto.

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The Plot

“Aida,” set in ancient Egypt, is a love triangle. The Egyptian general Radamès is in love with Aida, an Ethiopian slave. She is the daughter of the Ethiopian king, Amonasro. Aida, in turn, is the servant of the Egyptian princess Amneris, who is also smitten with Radamès.

When it is announced that the Ethiopians are about to attack, the Egyptian king names Radamès as leader of the army. Aida is conflicted between her feelings for Radamès and her patriotism for her native country.

When Act 2 begins, Egypt has defeated the Ethiopians. Amneris tricks Aida into revealing her love for Radamès by initially telling her that he has been killed in battle.

During an immense celebration for the victorious army, Aida spots her father, Amonasro, among the prisoners. He urges her to keep his identity secret.

As a reward for Radamès’s success, the Egyptian king presents him with the hand of Amneris in marriage.

In Act 3, Amonasro convinces Aida to find out from Radamès the route the Egyptians plan to take to invade Ethiopia. Amonasro hides while the lovers meet and plan to run away together.

The Ethiopian king reveals himself right after Radamès informs Aida of his army’s plans. However, Amneris and the Egyptian high priest Ramfis then step out of the darkness. Aida and Amonasro manage to escape but Radamès surrenders.

The last act starts with Radamès declining to renounce Aida or to defend himself against the charge of treason. Once he is sentenced to be buried alive, Amneris has a change of heart. She tries to get the priests to grant leniency but fails. Aida sneaks into the tomb so she can die along with Radamès.

Soloman Howard as the king of Egypt in Verdi's
Soloman Howard as the king of Egypt in Verdi’s “Aida.” (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

The Performance

Verdi often begins his operas with the most demanding music. Here, the tenor playing Radamès must sing “Celeste Aida” about his love for the slave girl.

The role is a good one for Marcello Giordani because it favors his upper range where his voice is strongest. He didn’t end the aria with the diminuendo that is indicated in the score, but few tenors do. He belted out the last note, and the audience responded enthusiastically.

While Aida wins the heart of Radamès, in some performances I have seen, the mezzo-soprano playing Amneris out-sings the soprano playing the title role. Currently, Amneris is the formidable Olga Borodina. Nevertheless, Aida is equally strong: Liudmyla Monastyrska. Her “Ritorna vincitor!” and “O patria mia” were among the highlights of the performance.

The most potent acting came from baritone Zeljko Lucic as Amonasro. He generated excitement in his fiery duet with Monastyrska in Act 3.

The production had two notable basses: Soloman Howard in his debut at the Met as the king of Egypt and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Ramfis.

The Met chorus, directed by Donald Palumbo, was tops, as usual, and conductor Marco Armiliato led an exciting performance.

The main weakness was the acting, mostly of the stand-and-deliver variety. Stephen Pickover was the stage director.

Gianni Quaranta’s enormous set evoked applause, as did the procession with crowds, horses, and on-stage trumpeters playing the familiar march.

The choreography by Alexei Ratmansky was another plus. Christine Hamilton and Bradley Shelver were the solo dancers.

“Aida” is running intermittently through April 20, 2015, with several cast changes, at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.