Monastyrska, Borodina, Alagna, Gagnidze, Kocan / Luisi
While most of this Aida was certainly pleasant, about the only part of it more than that was also agonizingly less than what it was.
Ten years ago Olga Borodina was at the top of the mezzo heap even in the ongoing Mezzo Golden Age. A luxuriant, even sound from top to bottom combined with an even more luxuriant vocal approach made her an unrivaled treat for the ear, and her middle-weight voice had the flexibility for Rossini and the force for Verdi. The capper was to be Didon in the Met's first Les Troyens in decades, with Ben Heppner and (as ever) James Levine. But that never happened -- Borodina got pregnant, she withdrew from the 02-03 season including Troyens, and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson got (and seized) the Met chance of a lifetime.
Borodina has, of course, had great successes since then, but as her 30s passed into the 40s, high notes have marred her perfection and become a recurring issue. They were no problem in the early 2006 Aida, but her much-anticipated house role debut as Eboli at the end of the year found them on and off. And now...
Her work as Amneris never did rely on the paint-peeling volume or high note blasts of her colleague Dolora Zajick, but a judicious amount of each complemented the royal stage business and use of exquisite soft tones to make, on the whole, a more humanly effective whole of an Egyptian princess. Today (well, Wednesday) the bottom and middle of Borodina's voice are as luxuriant as ever and, when allowed to work their magic alone, are still the magic of the production. But when high notes appear, as they must, the effect is now spoiled: they themselves have a pressured quality that disrupts the even flow of tone; Borodina's cautious lead-up interrupts her commanding phrasing; and, well, the final cry of the last-act judgment scene should be more than just instantly touched.
Perhaps she has better in reserve. Some of her colleagues were clearly leaving something for Saturday's moviecast -- most obviously newly-arrived tenor Roberto Alagna, who wasn't bad but clearly wasn't going to waste one of his really good nights on this dry run. Conductor Fabio Luisi, as I observed this morning, was meanwhile just starting his torturous run of four straight shows in the pit for three different operas -- and here some autopilot is surely excusable. That said, I really was astounded by how unusually pedestrian not only the phrase-shaping but the actual tonal quality of the Met's orchestral playing turned out this time: I suspect not only Troyens but Aida itself would have benefited from a reliable dedicated presence like Marco Armiliato's in this show's pit. Ballo ended last night, but both Troyens and Aida will continue to play over the next weeks, meaning that Luisi never will get to focus on just one of the pair.
Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska -- who debuted earlier in this run -- can sing Aida reasonably well, but her voice, though decent in size, is a nervous one without much fat in the middle, a poor fit for this lyrical wallow of a part and opera. Baritone George Gagnidze looks surprisingly tall in this company, but Amonasro doesn't give him much space for scene-chewing. Stefan Kocan, luxury cast as Ramfis, has as welcome a sound as ever.
If that's not enough eastern Europeans for you, the choreography seems to have reworked by ABT's choreographer-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky.
Luisi did just (a few hours ago, on Friday night) deliver the zippiest Ballo of the season, so perhaps he, Alagna, and Borodina have some nice surprises saved up for this afternoon's moviecast. But it may be that Sonja Frisell's production, the Zeffirelli-topping epitome of Met big realism, will again be broadcast in a less-than-ideal show... which is fine as long as it continues to run past its imminent 25th season. Like all the old warhorse productions this year, its virtues are starting to seem, in the current context, subversive and new.