Sonja Frisell’s Cecil B. DeMillish production of Aida, first seen in 1988, is back, and the crowds are happy. They applaud the marching spear-carriers, the hoochy-cooch slaves and immobile choral formations (Stephen Pickover serves ably as traffic cop). They applaud the horses (what, no elephants?). They applaud Gianni Quaranta’s crumbling-antiquity decors even though the opera takes place during the reign of the pharaohs when the architecture in question must have been relatively fresh. They applaud push-button technology that allows towering sets to slowly rise or fall on cue.
Peter Gelb, the general manager, has streamlined the proceedings, modifying the scenery for a quick change before the last act. Result: two intervals instead of three. Bless him.
Authentic Aidas have become about as rare as dodo birds. In the good old days we had Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas, for starters – spinto sopranos who could cut through the great ensembles, float exquisite pianissimo phrases, sustain arching lines with grace and project pathos at will. Today the Met has Angela M. Brown. Statuesque, dignified and diligent, she commands the right equipment. Unfortunately she seems to lack the right technique. Her broad tone flutters and loses focus under pressure. Her pitch seems unreliable, and she barely nips the top C in “O patria mia”. The search goes on.
Dolora Zajick, a force of operatic nature, has been storming the house as Amneris for 18 years. Although the opulence of her mezzo-soprano may have decreased a bit, her bravado remains triumphant. Marco Berti, the Radamès on duty, brings stamina and a tenorial trumpet to the heroic outbursts but keeps on blaring when the challenge turns tender. Andrzej Dobber introduces a dark, remarkably sturdy and remarkably incisive baritone as Amonasro. Among the basses, Carlo Colombara is strong as the high priest, Dimitri Kavrakos weak as the king.
Making an unheralded debut, Kazushi Ono enforces flexible tempos, reasonable precision and urgent accents. He knows how to lead and how to follow. A routine Aida on the stage, perhaps, but not in the pit.