I went on Saturday to the Met Opera to hear the matinee performance of Aida, the opera Verdi had originally been commissioned to write for the opening of Cairo's Khedivial Opera House in 1869. In the event, the opera was not actually performed there until 1871. The delay was caused by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War; the hostilities made it impossible to safely ship Aida's costumes and sets to Egypt in time for the opening night festivities and Rigoletto was substituted in its place. Although Aida had not been commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, as is often thought, the opera house itself had been built to commemorate the occasion.
Ever since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, that country had loomed large in the imagination of Europe and initiated what Said was in the twentieth century to term "Orientalism." Idealized Mideastern settings became commonplace in French art as could be seen in the works of such prominent artists as Delacroix, Ingres and Gérôme. Verdi himself, however, was largely immune to this sentiment. While he appreciated the commercial value of setting an opera in an exotic locale, he made no attempt to incorporate elements of Mideastern music in his score, as Mozart had done in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and never strayed far from the traditions of Italian opera when composing Aida.
Verdi had been paid handsomely to provide an overpowering spectacle in the tradition of grand opera. He had already had great success in this genre as early as 1855 with Les vêpres siciliennes and more recently with Don Carlos in 1867, but one senses that Verdi was never entirely comfortable with such extravaganzas. His forte had always been the composition of music that relentlessly drove the drama forward without the distractions, such as the mandatory second act ballet, that were an inevitable component of grand opera. As a result, Aida is something of a hybrid. While it does loosely follow the strictures of grand opera, particularly in the final scene of Act II that is almost entirely given over to the triumphal march at the gates of Thebes, the storyline itself is on a much more personal level. The libretto, written by Antonio Ghislanzoni who had previously worked with Verdi on the second version of La forza del destino, limited itself to only a handful of characters and concerned itself with their individual fates far more than with that of ancient Egypt. (In that regard, it's notable that the libretto described the setting only as "ancient Egypt," an indication that the opera was not to be interpreted as a historical drama.) At bottom was the standard love triangle involving Aida, Amneris, and Radamès carefully worked out over the course of four acts. In other words, it was an intimate love story placed in a monumental setting.
Aida is one of the "bread and butter" works in the Met repertory, an opera that always plays to a packed house whose audience has all too often come not so much for the music as to be dazzled by the sumptuous 1988 Sonja Frisell production. Sadly, the foreknowledge of a sellout often leads to a lack of attention in casting. This is not always fatal. Sometimes a little known conductor and cast can work together to create a memorable performance. Unfortunately, that did not occur on Saturday afternoon. The talent was little more than adequate. Conductor Daniele Rustioni, who made his Met debut with this production, was too lacking in experience to handle a work of this scope. Krassimira Stoyanova as Aida, Violeta Urmana as Amneris, and Riccardo Massi as Radamès all tried their best but did not really catch fire until the final act; their closing trio was quite moving.