Sunday, October 7, 2018

Rooting for Amneris

Verdi’s Aida
Metropolitan Opera
October 2, 2018

The leading ladies go head to head
Photo credit: Met Opera
Aida is not among my Verdi favorite operas, it’s too schematic. Still, this time the Met secured an exciting cast, with most of the lead singers being top notch: Anna Netrebko in the title role, mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris and baritone Quinn Kelsey as Amonasro. I never cared much for the tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (here as Radamés), but I was willing to put up with him given the rest of the cast.

All of the PR buzz was, understandably, concentrated on Anna Netrebko’s ticket-selling powers. The Russian super diva has been moving towards heavier repertoire and, according to an interview earlier this year with Opera News, this was the “top in difficulty” for her, so it was particularly interesting to check her out:

“Verdi did almost a trick on the soprano in Aida, because after two acts, which are quite heavy and demanding, with lots of singing, low and also high, above the chorus — my god, the second act, it’s killer — and then suddenly Aida comes into the third act with a completely different voice [...] You will be in trouble if you don’t prepare a strategy for this act. The aria, the duet with Amonasro, the duet with Radamès — it’s like a non-stop marathon, and your body is saying, ‘Okay, well, aaaaagh — when will this be finished?’” (Opera News, March 2018)

While I admired Netrebko’s Aida, I was not overwhelmed by it. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her performance, it was flawless, her voice at the height of its power, full and lyrical. The problem is that I am not crazy about the character itself. Aida is a tragic heroine, yes, but without much fire in her. She is mostly torn between a secret love (for Radamés, Egyptian general) and duty (to her family and country, Ethiopia, at war with Egypt). She is in a subordinate and powerless position (a slave at the Egyptian court), is manipulated by her scheming father, and finally chooses to die quietly (in a sealed tomb with her lover). Aida’s signing is beautiful, but generally either distressed or nostalgic.

Aida, the suppliant
Photo credit: Met Opera
Netrebko did everything she could to give depth to the character, but no matter what she did, her Aida paled next to Anita Rachvelishvili’s Amneris, who quite frankly stole the show and made it clear that when the Egyptian princess is portrayed by an amazing singer, she is the most interesting character of the whole opera.

Aida assumes the pose of powerless subordination
Photo credit: Met Opera
The dramatic complexities of Amneris span different levels: she is madly in love with Radamés, but also hyper jealous, her main suspicion is (rightly) her slave Aida and she does not hesitate to use her power to trick and humiliate her. After the pharaoh gives Amneris’ hand to Radamés, her joy quickly turns to vindictive rage once she discovers that her bridegroom is betraying her love and country. This rollercoaster leads to the trial scene in Act IV where emotional temperatures rise even more: Amneris is torn between her deep love for Radamés and her wounded pride, she wants to use her powers to save him from a death sentence but only if he forgets Aida. When he refuses, she unleashes her rage:

Chi ti salva, o sciagurato,
Dalla sorte che ti aspetta?
In furore hai tu cangiato
Un amor che ugual non ha.                
De’ miei pianti la vendetta
Ora il cielo compirà.*

But only to repent in despair shortly thereafter:

Ohimè!… morir mi sento… Oh! chi lo salva?
E in poter di costoro                    
Io stessa lo gettai!… Ora, a te impreco,
Atroce gelosia, che la sua morte
E il lutto eterno del mio cor segnasti!**

She then begs passionately the high priest to pardon Radamés and, when that does not work, she curses him and storms off. I mean, come on! Give me more of this and less of wimpy celeste Aida!

In a way, Amneris’ explosive tragedy reminded me of certain operatic soprano assoluta characters such as Elisabetta (in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux) and Bellini’s Norma, who are torn because of the conflicts between their public power and private passions.

Amneris on the verge
Photo credit: Met Opera
In the hands of Anita Rachvelishvili, Amneris came to life as a passionate, viscerally intense woman on a mission. Her fluid smoky instrument ranged from light and lyrical in Act II when she dreams of her loved one, to threatening and menacing when she tricks Aida, to then fully unleash with fury, doubt and despair in the turbulent trial scene in Act IV, with such an intensity that I felt shivers down my spine. Rachvelishvili’s acting was terrific too, her body so perfectly in sync with the emotions of her signing – here are her thoughts on this moment:

Amneris is “just in love, that’s all. And she is jealous, like every in-love woman. She is so distressed that she is losing her only love. When it comes to the last judgment scene, I concentrate all my energies. You have to express yourself not only with the voice but with everything, the body — put out all of your emotions, all of your pain, in the maximum way possible, so that audiences feel what she feels in that moment.” (Opera News, January 2018)

A manipulative Amonasro guilt trips Aida
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich / NYTimes
Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey was one of the most exciting discoveries in last year’s Met season (in Trovatore and Lucia). His voice is of a rare grounded expressive beauty, big and effortless and with impeccable Italian diction. As Amonasro, he unfortunately does not have too much to do but his Act III duet with Aida delivered thundering fireworks when he threatened his daughter of terrible things unless she coaxes critical military info out of Radamés. I cannot get enough of this baritone, definitely looking forward to seeing him again later in the season as Germont.

Radamés is a man in demand
Photo credit: Met Opera
In the heroic role of Radamés, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko was just okay. He could get there technically but his instrument just lacks warmth, thus confirming my theory of the current crisis of heroic tenors. Seriously, who else is out there who can tackle these roles (other than Kaufmann who’s been calling sick for years at the Met)? It’s just so depressing when a heroic character comes across as bloodless.

Disappointing tenor aside, this Aida sure delivered a great night at the opera, with the classic grand production looking timeless, the chorus in top form and the orchestra doing justice to the score under the baton of maestro Nicola Luisotti.


The Met does grand opera
Photo credit: Met Opera
With the star power to match
Photo credit: Met Opera

(*) From the fate now hanging o'er thee / Who will save thee, wretched being? / She whose heart could once adore thee / Thou hast made thy mortal foe. / Heaven all my anguish seeing, / Will avenge this cruel blow!

(**) Ah me! death's hand approaches! who now will save him? / He is now in their power, / His sentence I have sealed — Oh how I curse thee, / Jealousy, vile monster, thou who has doomed him / To death, and me to everlasting sorrow!

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