It's fitting that the first opera I write about is "Aida." It's the one opera you can attend and not be totally intimidated by complex music, beautiful but unfamiliar voices or a convoluted story line with way too many characters. You scramble to understand what's going on, as you check the seat back in front of you - not for the in-flight magazine but for the English translation on a tiny digital screen. For "Aida" all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the spectacle. You'll even hear the "Fat Lady" sing!
Written and composed by Giuseppe Verdi, "Aida," first performed in 1871, is characterized as "grand opera," meaning it has a historical theme on a monumental scale with soloists and large choruses. Capitalizing on Europe's fascination for Egypt after Napoleon's forays there in the early part of the century, "Aida" is cast against the towering backdrop of the palaces of the Egyptian kings, but it is actually a simple love story
The Egyptians are threatened with invasion by the Ethiopians and select Rademès, to lead its troops. The king's sister, Amneris, the aforementioned "Fat Lady," at least in this production, thinks she has the inside track on his affections, but Rademès is secretly in love with Aida, a captured Ethiopian slave. What none of the Egyptians knows is that she is also the daughter of Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia.
I think you can see where this is heading. Opera doesn't have the intricate plotting of great theater, but it doesn't have to. What you are hoping is the sometimes silly stories don't disrupt the showcase for the amazing voices you hear. Even for an unrepentant rock aficionado like me, the sheer range and power of these remarkable singers is awe inspiring.
The other thing I've found I love about opera is the sets, and the Metropolitan Opera spared no expense with "Aida." The massive exteriors bedecked with the caryatids of fallen pharaohs rise and fall smoothly and noiselessly to reveal the expansive interior of the temple, populated by the heroic chorus the Met has made famous.
As you might expect, Aida is eventually forced to choose between her loyalty to her father or Radamès. When she gets Radamès to reveal the Egyptians' battle route, her father overhears, but so does Amneris. Radamès is convicted of treason and locked in an underground cell. In a plot stretch Aida finds her way to his cell, where they wait for the end in each other's arms. This is another operatic tradition I've learned: the heroes die. Powerless to intercede, Amneris sings a lament as the curtain closes. The Fat Lady has sung!
While I'm hardly qualified to judge the voices, for me the most impressive performance of the night came from Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida, who was substituting for Violeta Urmana. I can still hear her incredibly pure soprano, as she effortlessly hit the highest notes. Judging by the applause and the bravos (for men) and the bravas (for women!), the audience clearly loved both Marcelo Álvarez as Radamès and Stephanie Blythe as Amneris, as well.
If you've never been to an opera, try Aida. It's not long by opera standards, about three hours with two intermissions. You will be amazed by the magnificent sets, and you will absorb and appreciate, even if, like me, you don't fully understand the more sophisticated aspects of the music and the vocals.
Grade: A, based on my own enjoyment. I'll leave the critique of "Aida" to the opera experts at the New York Times. Here's their review.