Aida and Amneris: Vocal Gladiators

Netrebko and Rachvelishvili face down, photo @ Marty Sohl
In recent years, the NBA has gained a renewed interest. Maybe the most intense since the days of Michael Jordan. Why? Because NBA fans know that every spring, there will be a thrilling facedown between Lebron James and Stephen Curry. Two equally amazing players doing what they do best, and throwing down season after season. It's great for the sport.

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
Aida is by far the best thing I've ever heard Anna Netrebko sing. It's a great synergy between singer and role. Her voice sits in a perfect place for the music -- she has at this point in her career both the cavernous chest voice and the soaring upper register to handle the role's daunting range. Her vocal security allows her to negotiate the treacherous climb to high C in "O patria mia" without any fear. She could even take the C "dolce." You'd have to go back to Leontyne Price to find a soprano who sang "O patria mia" with so little fear. Her control over her instrument is a marvel -- she can float her voice in moments like the "Numi, pieta" of "Ritorna vincitor" and also let her voice rip in huge waves of sound during the Triumphal Scene. Her acting was not very specific -- it involved a lot of raised fists and not much else -- but it was deeply felt. There was a sincerity to her performance that isn't always there. Besides, who cares about the acting? Opera is about voice and Netrebko's voice carried the evening.

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
For those who are curious: after an online scuffle on Instagram about skin darkening makeup Netrebko tonight wore virtually no bronzer. I guess she took the criticism to heart after all.

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
Anita Rachvelishvili was just that mezzo who didn't just threaten, she actually stole the show. Her voice is a lot like Netrebko's -- a large powerful column of sound. She too has a genuine chest voice she's not afraid to use, as well as a decent enough upper register to negotiate those upward ascents in the Judgment Scene and she caps the scene with a thrilling final high A. She wasn't all bluster though -- in the final scene her prayer floated over the auditorium like a breeze. She was also not the most specific actress -- Olga Borodina had less voice but could slay with the bitch-face and side-eye, while Rachvelishvili mostly used stock gestures. But as I said, with a voice like molten lava and such charisma, as well as such frisson with Netrebko, who cares? Brava diva.

Quinn Kelsey, photo @ Marty Sohl
This run also has a strong Amonasaro in Quinn Kelsey, who may not have the world's most beautiful voice but sure has the vocal power to thunder ominously in the Nile Scene. The duet between Aida and Amonasaro was another one of the moments when one was simply awash with waves of sound from two huge-voiced singers. It's great to finally have an American baritone with the volume and range of, say, Leonard Warren or Robert Merrill. Kelsey even has the Warren snarl. I've heard Kelsey in other things at the Met but next to Netrebko and Rachvelishvili he also seemed energized and unleashed his voice with all cylinders grinding. The world is always short of true Verdi baritones. Maybe Kelsey will be The One. Ryan Speedo Green was also sonorous as the King. Dmitriy Belosselskiy (Ramfis) is a bass without low notes. How is that possible? But one low note after another came out like a weak growl. Russia used to produce the world's greatest basses. What happened?

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.


  1. Great review--has me licking my chops for Oct 11, when I see it. About Kelsey: the Met seems behind the curve on casting him in the Verdi roles he deserves. I think his voice is beautiful, and he conveys real emotional complexity in roles that are rarely sympathetic. His Rigoletto is heartbreaking, but the Met has yet to promote him from Monterone.

    1. Oh have fun! Hopefully Gelb is one the phone to get someone else for Antonenko. Can't imagine that performance being beamed out for HD.
      Kelsey did sing some di Lunas last year but I agree the Met is still on Lucic as their mainstay baritone.

  2. That was exactly what I was thinking - I have a ticket for next Saturday but I can’t imagine him being memorialized on this transmission.

    1. I said this on a Facebook group: I never thought there'd be the day I was longing for Marco Berti but there it is ...

  3. Thanks for another wonderful review, Ivy. You put us right there in the theater with you. (I listened on Sirius.)

    I don't think there's another Aida singing today who can match Netrebko. (Sorry, I'm decidedly not a Rad fan.) Netrebko has all the notes and can do whatever she wants with them (that high C in the aria!). Compared with the best Aidas I've seen, she lacks only the ability to instantly engage your sympathy and break your heart the way Price or Tucci did. By comparison, Netrebko retains a little too much Lady Macbeth.

    I expect that latter quality in Amneris, and Rachvelishvili certainly provided it. Yet she also showed a softer side, making the character more human than usual (as she did with last year with Azucena). I 100% agree she stole top honors for the evening. Kelsey reminds me a bit of Louis Quilico. Big voice, but not necessarily the most ingratiating tone. Better as Amonasro than Di Luna. Above all, he's a REAL baritone.

    Thank you for the curtain call video. Seeing Antonenko milk that tepid applause as if he had triumphed made me despise him even more. I understand that Anile, who replaced him in Otello a couple years back, refused another cover contract. Good for him; bad for us. Whoever is in the wings must have more to offer than Antonenko's caterwauling. There's a sub for Alagna's next Samson? Could he be resting up for an unscheduled HD Radames?

    1. Alagna has a very bad cold and I'm not sure he'd be willing to jump in as Radames. When I saw him at the stage door on Friday he had NO speaking voice and was coughing. One week is a short time to call in a Radames seeing that not that many tenors have it in their rep. Maybe Mr. Netrebko (Eyvasov) can be replaced in Friday's Fanciulla and sing Radames? He does have that in his rep.

  4. Nothing against Kelsey but having Lucic as your go-to baritone is a pretty good problem to have. He sometimes reminds me of Giuseppe Taddei (especially as Macbeth) and that's the highest compliment I can award.

    1. Lucic can't sing everything though. As I said, the world is always short real Verdi baritones and it's good to have Kelsey.

  5. Thanks for this terrific review. I saw the HD and was thrilled by both Netrebko and Rachvelishvili. I was already a fan of both and thought they were great in Aida. Their voices really complemented each other. I love Netrebko and have seen her in several Italian roles in person. I think her diction and her Italian have improved although still mushy. True that her acting mostly relied on stock gestures but I think she moves very well. In the youtube clips of her opening night, I noticed that her makeup was quite dark; in the HD performance it was several shades lighter. Who needs bronzer anyway? The Met gave it up for Otello. Rachvelishvili was fabulous! She is perfect for this role. Borodina was great too and I think "emoted" more; Zajick was fantastic too. As you said, one acts with the voice. As for Antonenko, he was truly awful. What has happened? He's never been a subtle singer and has always been a screamer to some extent, but he was embarrassingly terrible as Radames. His voice is blown out and he's only 43. Eyvazov would have been far superior. I don't love his sound but his voice is decent and healthy. Kelsey is undervalued. I liked him a lot. Thanks also for posting the video.

    1. I think a few years ago Antonenko had some major health issues and his voice has never been the same. I heard him as the Prince in Rusalka and it wasn't a beautiful voice but it was capable. Things have unfortunately gone downhill.

  6. I listened to this performance of Aida on Sirius yesterday (rebroadcast) and couldn't believe how awful Antonenko was. I walked out on Macbeth couple of seasons ago and since am careful not to purchase tickets to operas he is scheduled to appear. Why does the Met continue booking him?


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