NEW YORK –Anna Netrebko’s first Aida at the Metropolitan Opera effortlessly claimed considerable event status: No matter how you feel about the idolized Russian soprano, Verdi’s warhorse about star-crossed lovers on the Nile, or the overall state of the western world, the eyes of New York’s opera community were trained on the Sept. 26 performance. It generated more buzz than the opening of the Met’s season two days before.
That doesn’t mean it always lived up to the anticipation. At times, the audience seemed to will the evening into artistic significance, since there was some rough weather vocally en route to the final curtain. My experience is that Netrebko (like Deborah Voigt) isn’t at her best on opening nights. However imposing, the Netrebko voice initially seemed to be swallowing itself – sounding somewhat constricted, without bloom and not clearly reflecting her emotionally generous temperament or her well-considered interpretive decisions. Experience told you the voice wasn’t going to stay that way.
One was far less confident about Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Radames. His voice spread into an indistinctly wide vibrato with every ascending sequence in the “Celeste Aida” aria, and the final note was shouted as much as it was sung. You feared for his vocal health. Both of them pulled their voices together, Antonenko succeeding on vocal heat rather than detail and Netrebko evolving into a mezzo-colored tone with more amplitude, presence, and chilling low notes than in her 2017 broadcast of Aida from Salzburg. The side effect was that her voice was less clean and a bit unwieldy – especially noticeable because her soft singing was the most mesmerizing.
Theatrically, Netrebko’s Aida was not an Ethiopian princess who took well to captivity; her headstrong volatility played readily and heedlessly into the cunning of Amneris, her Egyptian romantic rival. That approach had a heightening effect on Aida’s death scene, if only because this Aida was too imperious to immediately consider self-sacrifice as an option.
In a way, Netrebko is more Russian than ever: Her voice has taken on the cutting power of most Slavic voices, and her stylized physical extravagance sometimes suggested she was channeling Galina Vishnevskaya. Just for the record: Netrebko wore medium-brown makeup, a tad darker than Antonenko’s controversially light-faced Otello in past Met seasons. But c’mon, Netrebko transcends makeup.
What speaks well for the Met is that she was surrounded by worthy company, and that would normally include Antonenko on a good night. In fact, Anita Rachvelishvili’s Amneris had ovations easily equal to Netrebko’s and certainly deserved them. While Netrebko tended to command a scene from the first moment, Rachvelishvili insinuated herself more slowly, in keeping with Amneris’ sense of strategy, and accomplished the intense soft singing that can make that approach happen. When she brought out the big vocal guns, she was all the more impressive.
Ryan Speedo Green was in good vocal health for The King. But the late arrival of Quinn Kelsey’s Amonasro (Aida’s captured father) became something of a master class in Verdian theater, with a fusion of voice, word, and gesture that gave his every moment grave theatrical truth.
All the while, this Aida had two significant safety nets: The durably grand Sonja Frisell production that puts huge, sun-baked Egyptian monuments on the Met stage, as well as live animals and a cast of hundreds that the audience applauded rapturously. More significantly, conductor Nicola Luisotti, best known as music director of the San Francisco Opera, gave the score a life-and-death emotional weight that easily equaled similar virtues heard from Riccardo Muti in the 2017 Aida broadcast from Salzburg. No matter what vocal struggles were or were not happening onstage, Luisotti made sure the big-picture elements of the opera itself were in the foreground. More than anybody at the Met that night, Luisotti made me believe in the opera all over again.
Aida continues at the Metropolitan Opera through Oct. 11. For tickets and information, go here. On Oct. 6 it is the season’s first production to be transmitted to movie theaters in The Met: Live in HD series.