The Metropolitan Opera on Monday, November 5.
At the performance of Aida I attended, a set change drew an enthusiastic round of applause. That cracked me up (a set change?—really?!), but to be fair, the spectacle of Aida is half the fun, and this particular production, by Sonja Frisell, features gorgeous sets that manage to be dramatic without stumbling into kitsch—quite an achievement considering how strongly Egyptian iconography is associated with the Bangles and Steve Martin in American pop culture.
Similarly, the bare plot of Aida—a tragic love triangle between a soldier, a princess, and her slave (secretly a princess herself)—would suggest silly melodrama, like the ballet La Bayadère, but for the most part, the opera avoids that. The three main characters each struggle to reconcile duty to one’s people and duty to oneself, and that theme elevates the lurid romance. Aida’s aria “O patria mia,” for example, is genuinely affecting, a beautifully pained elegy for a lost homeland.
Which leads me to the music. Verdi took the libretto’s Egyptian setting as license to dabble in eerie modal melodies and striking orchestration, and the result is a thoroughly Romantic opera that doesn’t sound quite like any other Romantic opera. Authentically Egyptian it’s not (though of course, we have very little idea what music of the pharaonic period would have sounded like anyway), but it does create a luminous, mystical aura. The achingly beautiful melodies—hinting at far-flung locales—make the star-crossed love story seem exotic instead of familiar.