Since the birth of polity, many have struggled with the question of how much they are willing to sacrifice to save the State. It is that very question, which the title character of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida” addresses in the beautifully created, yet poorly cast performance at the Metropolitan Opera.
In an opera set at the height of Egyptian imperial power, Aida must choose between the man she loves–a general in the Egyptian army–and the country that bore her, Ethiopia. Yet, it is truly a pity when the opera’s enchanting arias, orchestral harmony, and comprehensive plot and set cannot be backed up by most of the major singers on the stage.
Princess Amneris–voiced by Stephanie Blythe–and the slave Aida–sung by a muffled Violeta Urmana–have both fallen in love with the same man, the tenor Marcelo Álvarez as General Radames. Aida is conflicted between that love and a love for her country, Ethiopia, where her father is king. Amneris suspects a secret rival, and falsely informs Aida of his death in order to draw a reaction out of her. This is Blythe’s tour de force, a moment where the psychological and vocal portrait of her character is on full display. Aida’s response leaves no doubt as to her loyalties, and both go off to celebrate Radames’ triumphant return.
In a scene overshadowed by monumental facades and a beautiful performance by the chorus, Amneris is given to Radames as a reward for his victory, which he cannot turn down. Aida also reunites with her father—travelling incognito—who asks her to manipulate Radames into revealing his army’s marching orders on their next campaign against Ethiopia. Now bound by the impossible question, Aida sings one of Verdi’s most exquisite arias, “O patria mia,” as she longs for her home. She meets Radames the night before his marriage, and, begging that he run away with her and leave his home, draws the secret information out of him. The ploy results in a death sentence for Radames, while Amneris pleads for him to be spared, even if she could never have him as a husband. Buried alive, Radames finds Aida in his tomb, and together they proclaim their love for each other while Amneris prays for them.
Urmana’s solo moments were wonderful, but her voice paled against the stronger singers and was trampled by the orchestra, becoming almost inaudible at times.
Álvarez proved to be a convincing actor, but he could not capture his desperate love for Aida vocally. His opening admission of feelings for her was subpar. Throughout the opera he either bellowed or whispered, never reaching a happy medium.
But Blythe lifted the production. Blythe, who made her house role debut as Amneris, gave a dazzling and nuanced portrayal of the spoiled Egyptian princess. Full of jealous power, yet seductive and charming, the mezzo-soprano’s vocal talents could only be matched by her own acting abilities.
Regardless of the singing quality, the set was magnificent in its replication of grand Eygptian throne rooms, temples, and building facades. Marco Armiliato, conducting the orchestra, gave a rousing and glorious rendition, while the chorus, a staple of a Verdi opera, was in great form throughout the night.