A blues night on the Nile

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 10/27/2007

Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

In the eleven hundredth Metropolitan Opera performance of Aida, which took place on October 30th, something out of the ordinary occurred during the prelude. Generally, the fragile opening measures are obliterated by the coughs, rustling programs, and last words of conversation from a progressively inattentive public. However the first phrases, were so gracefully shaped, and played with such beauty of tone by the strings, that they brought a hush over the house.

Unfortunately the same phrases, occurring later in Ritorna Vincitor, and again in the second act duet, were not produced with equal grace by soprano Micaela Carosi. It must be said that this young Roman has an opulent voice of considerable magnitude, and that from a vocal standpoint she might well possess everything necessary for a great Aida. The solidity of the middle voice, as well as her brilliant fortes, which easily float above the entire orchestra and chorus, are quite impressive.  There are, however, many serious shortcomings, though she may be young enough to transcend them: Most disturbing were her pianissimi in O Patria mia which she crooned in the vulgar bluesy manner of a night club performer. Furthermore, when she was not singing forte, there was a tendency toward flatness and a slow oscillating vibrato. Her almost primitive sense of style leads one to wonder what kind of music she listens to. Has she never heard Tebaldi or Milanov? The arching lines of arias and ensembles were uncharacteristically pulled out of shape and heavily decorated at every turn with accents, tenutos, and exaggerated dynamic changes. It was a tribute to the conductor, that he was able to second guess her especially clumsy phrasing in the tomb scene, and adjust the orchestra accordingly.

Because of the cancellation of Marco Berti, Rhadamès was sung by Franco Farina, who for years has had a shadow career at the Metropolitan Opera, although perhaps he deserved better. He has delivered many first rate performances for many seasons, and even now, well past his prime, Farina sings with authentic style and often heroic tone

Olga Borodina, the Amneris of the evening is a convincing actress, who employs a minimum of gestures and has a compelling presence. Her truly regal demeanor stood in marked contrast to Miss Carosi’s rather exaggerated movements and unimpressive bearing. One believed the former and not the latter. Borodina’s beautiful but somewhat cool singing is invariably dependable, and she makes one understand why Verdi was at first inclined to entitle the opera Amneris.

Andrzej Dobber delivered a dramatically convincing portrayal of Amanasro, as a king, a savagely vengeful warrior and a manipulating father. Again his gestures were relatively minima, and in keeping with the adage that opera is voice, voice, and voice, his free flowing, sonorous baritone easily conveyed the greater part of the emotional message.

One expects in the temple scene to hear the crystal clear soprano voice of the high priestess soaring above the rolling chords of the harp. This part is almost always cast perfectly – but not, unfortunately for performance eleven hundred!  Jennifer Check whose intonation sagged at every crescendo, suffered pitch problems and vocal problems which considerably diminished the effect of the magnificent choral singing that surrounded her.

The stunning realistic sets, appropriate for one of the most lavish of operas, do not wear on the eye as the years pass. They prompt one to wonder how it must have been on December 24th, 1871 when members of the great moneyed powers of the world, brought to Cairo through the opening of the Suez Canal a year earlier, convened to hear the premier of Aida, commissioned by a fabulously wealthy Khedive of Egypt. Ostentation was the order of that day, and in keeping with this grand tradition, the Metropolitan Opera again produced ostentation in full force on October 30th, 2007. This is, perhaps, very fortuitous because the public, although appreciative of Borodina and Dobber, gave it’s most ecstatic rounds of applause to the Moorish dancers, and the plumed horses at their entrance in the “triumphal scene.” One is amazed at how well the administration deals with realities such as these.

Raymond Beegle is Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, has written for Fanfare Magazine, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.