Aida and Amneris: Vocal Gladiators
|Netrebko and Rachvelishvili face down, photo @ Marty Sohl|
In an ideal world Verdi's Aida is supposed to be a throw-down between Lebron and Steph-calibre singers. The battle of wills between Aida the Ethiopian princess and Amneris the Egyptian princess when done right is thrilling, edge-of-your-seat drama. Unfortunately it's been a long time since we've had performances where the Aida and Amneris have been equally matched. Well we finally got that match. Anna Netrebko and Anita Rachvelishvili are two prima divas of the stage. Their voices are huge and soaring and overpower the chorus and orchestra. Their temperaments are fierce and unyielding. They both have charisma to burn. And the energy they generate together takes the performance to another plane.
|Netrebko, photo @ Marty Sohl|
Netrebko learned the role from Ricardo Muti and this is also the most disciplined singing I've seen Netrebko do. Because as great as her natural gifts are Netrebko can often be a careless singer. Sagging pitch, rhythmic slackness, cloudy vowels and disappearing consonants, smudged runs -- that's usually the "but" of the Netrebko experience. With this role, there was none of that. She sang the role with scrupulous attention to vowels, consonants, pitch, and dynamics. Brava diva.
|Netrebko throws a fit|
But all of this would be for naught if there wasn't an Amneris who threatened to steal the show. Amneris is actually the most fully realized character of the opera -- her storyline makes a complete arc from spoiled, jealous princess to vengeful, spurned lover to the heartbroken woman left behind. Verdi gives her the last word in the opera, a beautiful prayer of forgiveness.
|Amneris and Radames, photo @ Marty Sohl|
|Quinn Kelsey, photo @ Marty Sohl|
I've avoided talking about Aleksandrs Antonenko (Radames) because had he even been halfway decent the night would have been an unalloyed joy. But Antonenko was quite frankly awful. Strangulated, off-pitch bellowing in "Celeste Aida." Okay, but that aria is impossible so let's give him a chance. Unfortunately he got worse. By the Nile Scene he was completely out of voice, and what came out of his mouth was noise rather than music. The Tomb Scene with the exquisitely quiet "O terra addio" had Netrebko floating beautifully and Antonenko yelping helplessly. The warm appreciative audience gave him almost no applause and there was even scattered booing during his curtain calls. Usually I'd say "poor guy" but this was not a vocally acceptable performance in any venue, anywhere.
Nicola Luisotti led a taut, thrilling performance from the orchestra. He did not indulge his singers, and that also elevated the quality of the performance. The Met chorus continues to be another star unto itself. Sonja Frisell's 30 year old production looks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Egyptian Gallery -- the Triumphal Scene continues to be a crowd-pleaser, with the horses getting applause. I've seen several Aida runs and the production can look tired and rote with lesser singers but when you have Netrebko and Rachvelishvili it served as a perfect picturesque backdrop for these two divas to just let their voices rip downstage center in front of the prompter's box.
This past summer my mom visited Rome but she refused to see the Roman Colosseum because of its savage background. "It's too hard to think about," she said. "Lions over here, gladiators over there ... no." My mom's sense of morality and compassion are amazing, but the current run of Aidas with Netrebko and Rachvelishvili is like being transported back to Roman times where two gladiators are fighting to the death. And I could understand the thrill.