The MET splurges on the Nile

Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Liudmyla Monastyrska as the title character and Olga Borodina as Amneris rehearse Verdi’s “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

With Verdi’s “Aida,” grand opera couldn’t be more grandiose.

The Metropolitan Opera’s elaborate revival is so over the top, it sets a standard for opulence. Audiences can’t get enough of Director Sonja Frisell’s 1988 version of Egyptian temples and tombs along the Nile.

What opera company would hand over such excess to a modern conceptualist like David Alden? His production last week of Verdi’s other blockbuster, “Un Ballo in Maschera,” sprouted angular walls, mirrors and a floating Icarus to symbolize downfall.

If you’re longing for mainstream gigantism, period sets and exotic costumes, then see the live transmission of “Aida” on Saturday at Fort Lewis College.

The story is simple and hinges on the conflict between public duty and private indulgence. The time is ancient Egypt.

In Act I, Radamès, a gifted captain of the Egyptian Guard, is promoted to commander. Ambitious, he’s the only character in the opera not born into a royal position. To gain power, he has to earn his way. A direct path leads through war with Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, he’s fallen in love with Aida, an Ethiopian princess who is a captive in Thebes and servant to Amneris. She’s an Egyptian princess who also loves the commander. And you know how much Verdi loves triangles.

Private passions interlace with public matters, and the dilemma finally works itself out in a terrific final scene – a trio, of course.

In between there’s plenty of pomp and parading. During the first intermission, war between Ethiopia and Egypt takes place. At the beginning of Act II, everyone’s awaiting the triumphant return of the troops. Unfortunately, Amneris learns that her Ethiopian slave, Aida, loves Radamès, and soon the famous triumphal march brings every Egyptian, including the commander, back on stage.

Verdi’s march is nothing if not high pageantry. Soldiers, officers, slaves, musicians, dancing girls, captives and probably a few stage hands create the illusion of a victorious capital city at the end of war. There may not be any camels, elephants or giraffes as in some outdoor Roman productions, but the Met production promises to have some live horses.

By now, the 1988 production has become legendary. Frisell worked with the Italian opera and film designer Gianni Quaranta to create the spectacle of ancient Egypt. At the time, Frisell said she wanted to intensify the public-private conflict that is at the core of the story. For example, in Act III, when Radamès secretly meets Aida on the banks of the Nile, it was traditional to show big rocks and a small, distant Temple of Isis. In Frisell’s version, the commander and his lover are literally placed between massive rocks and a huge hard place – a rescaled Temple.

Making her Met debut is the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as Aida. She’s as famous in her country as Renee Fleming is in ours. We’ll see if tenor Roberto Alagna will be her equal.

I won’t make any cheap jokes about the downfall of a great general because of a questionable love affair. I’ll leave it for you to note how evergreen Antonio Ghislanzoni’s libretto and how timeless Verdi’s music.

The first production took place Dec. 24, 1871, in Cairo.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.

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