By Raymond Beegle
The prelude to this performance was the highlight of the evening. Beginning with the opulent first phrases from the strings, one was aware that Nicola Luiscotti was a conductor of depth and skill, whose supple, muscular approach to Verdi is reminiscent of the great Panizza, De Sabata and Cleva. Luiscotti’s formidable gifts were taxed to the full by an uneven cast often led dangerously close to derailment by the very troubled Rhadames, Aleksanders Antonenko.
Although his voice is hefty and plangent, he lacks a reliable technique, an innate musicality, and a sense of legato, the three causes of a steady decline over his almost decade long career at the Met. He seemed unable, and at times, unwilling, to keep the tempos set by the conductors and followed by his colleagues, causing a push and pull in the ensembles that took its toll dramatically and vocally on both Aida and Amneris.
Aida is far too dramatic a roll for Anna Netrebko, and it has damaged her vocally. Her range of dynamics is no longer seamless and organic. One senses a shifting of gears between the pianissimos and the fortes, and they often seem not to be part of the same voice. Although she is able to cut and soar over the large orchestra and chorus, she has sacrificed her once supple and rich quality for a rather petrified tone with a steel beam at its center. It was difficult for her to be a convincing actress in her duets with a desultory Rhadames who forced her into guessing what he would do next, but even in the ensembles with Amneris, one sensed an ongoing calculation of how much to give where in the unfolding scenes. She did indeed deliver in the most important moments like the closing lines of “O, patria mia,” and “O terra, addio,” but her caution was palpable throughout the evening.
Anita Rachvelishvili made one understand why Verdi originally intended to name the opera Amneris. Her technique is transcendent, and her luminous voice is at its zenith. The magnificent spun pianissimos at the beginning of the second act were the vocal high point of the evening, and she appears to be a lioness in this role, and, in the ensembles, artfully impervious to the clumsy phrases and clumsy movements of the man she is supposed to adore.
Quinn Kelsey was a powerful and compelling Amonasro. This is a voice of great beauty. He is fearless technically, and profoundly musical, creating a superb synthesis of the nobility, intelligence, and savagery of the Ethiopian king.
The ethereal prayer of the priestess intoned in the temple of Vulcan is always given to a limpid lyric soprano. It is a chant centered on one sustained pitch, E above middle C, interrupted occasionally with decorative flourishes. Unfortunately, the E was not heard tonight.
From the outset, and on each of the numerous repetitions, the insecure and constrained voice of Gabriella Reyes (High Priestess) was solidly, stubbornly under pitch, recalling Napoleon’s remark about the single step from the sublime to the ridiculous. In this case, it was a quarter tone, but it was annoying. Ramfis and the King, two gruff basses, stood their ground and barked out their pompous lines.
Visually, of course, this production is stunning, and impresses year after year. It is no easy thing to have the curtain rise on a stage whose effects compete with the colliding galaxies and tidal waves which are everyday fare on the silver screen.
An audience of tourists cheered every member of the cast of this, the 1,164th Metropolitan Opera performance of “Aida”, and didn’t miss the chance to applaud the horses in the triumphal scene.
Raymond Beegle reviews classical music and opera for the New York Observer and Fanfare Magazine. For many years he was Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, 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.