Aida (Metropolitan Opera, NR)

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theat_met.gifI was more aware of the orchestra than I have been in some past performances, but in a good way.

My greatest discovery of this theatrical season is the Metropolitan opera simulcasts at the Saint Louis Art Museum. I know you're going to say that that's sort of like Columbus saying he discovered America -- this is the third season the Museum has been carrying the simulcasts -- but it was a discovery to me, OK? Two weeks ago I saw a brilliant new staging of Tosca, today (October 24) a powerful production of Aida. And just as with DVDs there's lots of extras included: peeks backstage, interviews with the principals (hosted for this performance by Renée Fleming), and all kinds of fancy camera work that you'll never get from a live performance.

OK, I could have used less active cameras and cutting, but this seems to be the Met's chosen style and I'm not going to harp on it in every review. There's something both amazing and ludicrous about seeing the production from the June Taylor Dancers' viewpoint (dead overhead), so I guess you have to take the good and bad together and not worry when a new idea doesn't completely pan out.

This production of Aida by Sonja Frisell has been in the Met repertoire since 1988 (choreography by Alexei Ratmansky is new), but it has the right blend of grandeur and intimacy to serve the work well, and more importantly this performance made it seem absolutely fresh. As one of the principal singers said in a backstage interview, you have to treat every performance as if it's the first time you sang the role, and that commitment was evident throughout even though the company has done this opera more than 1000 times (second only to La Bohème).

Musically, everything was great. I was more aware of the orchestra than I have been in some past performances, but in a good way. Under Danilele Gatti's direction they're the partners of the singers, and you get the chance to realize how well Verdi used the colors of the orchestra to set the mood on stage. Particularly impressively was Gatti's ability to draw the whole dynamic range, from the softest pianissimo to the loudest fortissimo, from what seemed at times to be a whole battalion of principals, chorus and orchestra.

The principal voices were all in fine form. Violeta Urmana, who began her career as a mezzo, showed off  her rich soprano voice as Aida, while Dolora Zajick in the mezzo role of Aida's rival Amneris held her own musically. Zajick also shone as an actress, whether she was shedding crocodile tears in Act II or agonizing over the offstage trial of Radamès in Act IV, and the simulcast's ability to get in close to the performers really brought out this aspect of her performance. The men held up their part of the bargain equally well: Johan Botha was a stellar Radamès able to deliver both delicacy and drama, Carlo Guelfi was a powerful Amonasro, and Roberto Scandiuzzi and Stefan Kocán were solid as Ramfis and the King respectively.

Gianni Quaranta's basic set was a cross between the Temple of Dendur and the giant statues at Karnak (according to the program notes, the historical setting is "Egypt during the reign of the pharaohs," which narrows it down to 3,000 years or so), which aptly conveys both "ancient Egypt" and "grand opera," exactly what it should do. Ingenious set design allowed for multiple levels of staging. Two particularly fine examples were the opening of Act II, when a platform full of soldiers is gradually lowered to reveal the rest of the stage, and the conclusion of the opera which shows that Radamés' tomb is located directly beneath the temple. Costumes by Dada Saligeri were designed to project to the back of the hall, so while they were a bit much in close-up we'll have to call that an artifact of taping a live performance.

Here's a few pieces of advice if you'll be coming to one of the remaining simulcasts. 1) Arrive really early and see some of the museum exhibits before the performance or plan on parking at the foot of Art Hill and walking up. There won't be any spaces left in the nearby lots by 11:45 (remember: the Museum parking lots and the drives nearby are popular with picnickers and Zoo patrons as well as lovers of art and music) and those narrow roads become nightmarish with heavy traffic and impatient drivers. 2) By all means pack a snack, but eat it outside; each opera has several intermissions of 15 or 20 minutes so you'll have plenty of time. The first two simulcasts ran in the range of three and a half to four hours so may want a bite to eat, but the auditorium is not a dining hall. You can also get a snack or a sandwich from Puck's Café during one of the intermissions. 3) If you must be noisy during a performance -- unwrap your mints, rustle in your bag or whatever -- please do it during a forte not a pianissimo! If the assassins could time gunshots to cymbal crashes in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 version), surely you can manage as well.

The Metropolitan simulcasts are performed in the original language and subtitled in English. The remaining simulcasts for this season are Turandot (Nov. 7), Les Contes d'Hoffman (Dec. 19), Der Rosenkavalier (Jan. 9), Carmen (Jan. 16), Simon Boccanegra (Feb. 6), Hamlet (March 27) and Armida (May 1). Further information is available from the Museum at http://saintlouis.art.museum/index.aspx?id=373 and tickets are available from the museum box office or from Metrotix at http://www.metrotix.com/ or 314-534-1111. | Sarah Boslaugh

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