Aida

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.

Soprano Angela M. Brown made a lovely Aida. She sounded a shade thin at the very top of her register, but everywhere else her voice was vibrant. The shape of her phrases, the nuance of her tone—every note shimmered with emotion. Her stage presence was almost beside the point; her voice expressed everything.

My other favorite was Mark Delavan, who sang the role of Aida’s father, the king of Ethiopia, with a rich bass-baritone voice that resonated rather than rumbled. No one else really stood out for me, though, at least not in a positive fashion. Luciana D’Intino’s performance as Princess Amneris simply rubbed me the wrong way. Her lower register was growly and overwrought, and her jumps between head and chest voice felt abrupt and unmusical. Her acting, too, was far too mannered. Amneris is the heroine’s rival and adversary, but she isn’t evil, so D’Intino’s cartoonishly villainous performance seemed, to me, a betrayal of Verdi’s subtle score and the occasional poetry of the libretto.

D’Intino didn’t fit into Frisell’s elegant production, but the production was grand enough to make her irrelevant in the end. Verdi’s sumptuous music deserves the most applause, of course, but upon further reflection, why not clap for those strikingly hieroglyphed sets and the cast of thousands in their bright white tunics? After all, the depth of Aida might be what makes it special, but the spectacle is half the fun.