The long and enduring popularity of Verdi's Aida has, I suspect, more than a little to do with its remarkably lyric character. Not merely the quality and profusion of its tunes -- outstanding even for Verdi -- but the absence of certain dramatic qualities make the piece quite a different listen than, say, Forza or Don Carlos. As perhaps befits the ancient Egyptian setting, the main characters exert little on the fatal developments of the plot, in fact showing no interest in doing so or otherwise engaging in the central agon. Instead they offer personal -- lyric -- commentary on the unfolding situations, unburdened by the sense of having to do anything about them. It is up to Amonasro to push the plot forward, but his intervention is short-lived. How could it not? Public things are here experienced as spectacle, seen but not to be touched, especially by a guy who only appears halfway through the opera.
This all goes down quite easily for audiences, who themselves get spectacle and lyric reaction without the disruptive energy of an actual contest. The tenor and soprano, too, may succeed on pure beauty of sound and line, though the mezzo Amneris -- who feels the need to affect events, though she isn't shown actually doing it, and finishes with the most memorable hapless-reaction-scene of all -- generally shows something a bit more energetic.
On the other hand, a taut, symphonically dramatic account by the conductor is welcome, tightening some of the slack that can accompany outings of this warhorse. In the Met's current Aida, which I saw on Monday and will be broadcast in a few minutes, James Conlon sets the tone admirably in this style. It may not have been the case in the fall, but he and the orchestra are now on the same page, from the lyricism and transparent textures of the preludes to the rhythmically confident march strains, well-shaped climaxes, and further lyrical bits that follow.
The cast is pretty much what one might have expected. Olga Borodina, clearly the star of the show, can apparently sing everything but presents such a unitary face -- sound, phrase, gesture, and indeed sub-gestural body language -- as the scorned Egyptian princess that one can hardly imagine her otherwise (until one sees her Dalila, Eboli, etc.). Johan Botha makes Radames seem easy, finding a touch of trouble only when he attempted a soft finish to "Celeste Aida". (I know how it's written, but why not shout out that high note as every other tenor does?) His Radames is young, effortlessly powerful, and somewhat good-naturedly stupid -- not an unconvincing take, though it's not far from Botha's stage persona in every other role I've seen. Juan Pons is much better as Amonasro than as any of the lead Verdi parts he's been singing for the Met, and bit singers Kwangchul Youn (Ramfis) and Jennifer Check (the offstage Priestess) acquit themselves well.
The problem, as it often has been of late, is Aida herself. Andrea Gruber unfortunately reminded me why the term "squally" is often trotted out against sopranos one doesn't like, missing note after note and failing utterly to connect the ones she hit. She did improve a bit as the opera progressed, and there were some good pleasant notes she connected on -- where she showed the full vocal size for the part at the Met, which is a plus -- but the whole was... disconcerting. I've no idea how the broadcast will sound. Has Gruber blown out her voice for good? I hope not.
Still, on the whole, between Conlon, Botha, and Borodina -- and not least Verdi -- it was a memorably good evening.