The Metropolitan Opera is doing Aida, Verdi’s opera, and I went on Friday night, for one reason, chiefly: to hear Krassimira Stoyanova sing the title role. I wondered: Could the great Bulgarian soprano do it?
I know her chiefly for Mozart and Strauss. She is a sublime singer, a woman of rare vocal, musical, and mental gifts. Moreover, a kind of goodness radiates from her.
Last summer, I reviewed her from Salzburg in a Strauss opera, Die Liebe der Danae. I wrote, “Honestly, Stoyanova as Danae was a peak operatic experience for me.” True.
But Aida is a different kettle of fish. I had heard Stoyanova in Italian repertoire before—indeed, in Verdi. Googling around, I see that I’ve reviewed her in Otello (Desdemona) and the Requiem.
In 2011, I wrote, “Her voice could not hack parts of Verdi’s Requiem; it is simply too small. In the ‘Libera me,’ when she sang her big C, I heard nothing, absolutely nothing. I simply saw her mouth open. But when you could hear her, she was her admirable self.”
Prior to Friday night, I wondered, Would she be Italianate? Would she be big enough? The gentler parts would be wonderful, but would she also have slancio? Would she be a real Aida? Or would her portrayal be Stoyanova as Aida?
That would have been fine with me—good enough. Stoyanova as anything would be fine with me. But, as it happened, she was a real Aida. An Aida and a half. After she sang her early aria, “Ritorna vincitor,” I turned to the friend sitting next to me and said, “That settles it.”
She had everything—including power, including slancio. She was very Italianate. She was beautiful of voice, assured of technique, and unerring in emotion. “Who could ask for anything more?” wrote Ira Gershwin. I couldn’t.
And as I sat in the seats, I thought of Leontyne Price: She was a great Mozartean and a great Straussian. But she also, on the side, sang a bit of Aida.
Radamès on Friday night was Jorge de León, a Spaniard. He owns a special instrument—a big, beautiful tenor. When he had some control over it, he was good. And he gained in control as the night wore on. It was hard to believe that the man who had such trouble in the opening aria, “Celeste Aida,” could have sung as well as he did at later points in the opera.
Amneris was Violeta Urmana, the Lithuanian mezzo-soprano. Or is she? Some days she’s a mezzo, some days she’s a soprano. Some days she’s Amneris, some days she’s Aida. She remains formidable, even if her voice, in whatever register, has acquired some wear.
Amonasro was George Gagnidze, the Georgian baritone—full of testosterone, as usual. Snarling like Scarpia (the villain in Puccini’s Tosca), as usual. He was a treat to watch and hear. In something like “Ma tu, Re,” I would have appreciated more pliancy. But Gagnidze has other gifts.
Incidentally, in this same “Ma tu, Re,” Stoyanova sang utterly in tune, handling those accidentals like a pro, even if others miss or fudge them. For that alone, she deserved her fee.
Speaking of snarling like Scarpia: James Morris, the American bass-baritone, was Ramfis. I’m not sure he does Scarpia anymore. I think he’s done with Wotan (the one-eyed god in Wagner’s Ring). But Morris is not done. At seventy, he is sturdy, glowing, steady, and loud. Really loud. Only on a single high note did he betray anything like his age. James Morris is a marvel. He ought to be in the Smithsonian or something.
An American bass, Morris Robinson, was ol’ Pharaoh, singing with authority.
Our conductor was from Milan: Daniele Rustioni. He was enthusiastic and capable. Verdi gives the woodwinds in Aida a lot to do, and the Met’s did it well. The company’s chorus was first-rate, especially in hushed prayer.
And guess what? There were two intermissions, not three! They have stitched Acts III and IV together. In the old days, I’m pretty sure, there were three intermissions, one before each of the last three acts. That’s at least an hour and a half of intermissions—more like an hour and forty-five minutes.
Once, I wrote something like this: “Last night at the Metropolitan Opera, I attended a series of intermissions, punctuated by a performance of Verdi’s Aida.”
And what an opera. It’s a cliché now, a cartoon. But it wasn’t always, and it shouldn’t be now. Consider Act II, Scene 2, the triumphal music (but not for the Ethiopians). You can take it for granted. (You may even resent it.) It seems like it’s always been there. But someone had to bring it into being: and that was Verdi.
“Don’t hate me because I'm beautiful,” went an old ad line. Don’t hate Aida because it’s popular. Like ice cream, sunsets, and Michelangelo, it’s popular for very good reason.