Theatre

Verdi's HD spectacle

Barbara Ludman

Aida, the latest in the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series, is as magnificent on screen as it is in the theatre.

A scene from Verdi's Aida. (Metropolitan Opera)

Aida – Live in HD

Critics of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series complain regularly that the casting and staging of the operas filmed by the Met are altered to suit the demands of movie audiences. They say principals are chosen more for their looks than their voices; and the productions are designed to look good on the – necessarily truncated – movie screen, not to impress audiences paying up to $300 a ticket to see the productions from their plush seats at the Met.

These criticisms cannot be applied to the Met’s magnificent production of Aida, currently on at Cinema Nouveaus in major cities.

Although there is a valiant attempt to show the sets on screen in all their monumental glory, they are overwhelming in the theatre. Massive columns, some carved with figures of pharaohs, dominate the stage, dwarfing the action – deliberately, to contrast the puny humans with the mighty gods and their representatives on earth, the all-powerful priests.

Moreover, it is obvious that the principals were not chosen for the kind of exquisite looks that work well in close-ups.

Does it matter? Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska, making her Met debut as Aida, is sublime, with a voice that has been described as “voluptuous … a luscious round soprano that maintains its glow even in the softest notes”. Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, as Amneris, is at least as good, and perhaps even better – whether she is warning Aida not to cross her, or pleading with the gods to spare the man she loves.

Still, when one tries to picture the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, Borodina does not come to mind – nor does Monastyrska as an enslaved Ethiopian princess and Amneris’s handmaiden.

As for French tenor Roberto Alagna, who sings the role of Radames, beloved of both Aida and Amneris, it is difficult to see him as the general of a mighty army. Unlike the women, unfortunately, his voice seems a bit too thin for the role – which, it must be noted, is not a new role for him.

Frankly, nobody in this production looks the part – except Georgian George Gagnidze, whose baritone is worth waiting for. He could well be Aida’s father, the defeated king of Ethiopia; and when he manipulates his daughter’s emotions so she will trick her lover into betraying Egypt, his acting is convincing.

That the Met travelled to eastern Europe to cast five of the six principals in this production – Ramfis, the high priest, is Slovakian bass Stefan Kocán, and the role of Amneris’s father is taken by Hungarian bass Miklós Sebestyén – makes it very different, a plus for those who have seen Aida performed many times in many places over the years.

And for those seeing the opera for the first time, Verdi’s music, the spectacle and the spectacular voices combine to create an unforgettable experience.

This production was first staged in 1988 and there seems no reason to change it. There are several container-loads of scenery wheeled out whenever it’s performed at the Met, which is often – there was another go at the ultimate operatic war horse last year with a different cast but the same extraordinary staging. 

Aida will be shown on selected days this week. Check the Ster-Kinekor site at www.sterkinekor.com for details.

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