“I’m not dead!” a decrepit old man croaks as he’s carried toward a cart full of corpses in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” “I feel fine!”
It turns out the Metropolitan Opera’s 34-year-old production of “Aida” is not dead yet, either. This is something of a medical miracle. Early in 2019, the Met announced that its huge, old-fashioned staging of Verdi’s classic was in the midst of its final run; the 2020-21 season was to open with a new take.
Well, we all know what happened to the 2020-21 season, and the new “Aida” along with it. So the sturdy old standby has been brought back — Bob-Iger-at-Disney style — as a crowd-pleasing placeholder before the next production is introduced in two seasons, starring the soprano Angel Blue.
I admit it: I’ll miss the director Sonja Frisell’s “Aida,” its sun-baked hieroglyphics and torchlit temples. It exudes much the same Reagan-era excess as “The Phantom of the Opera,” which also premiered in New York in 1988 and is also currently saying goodbye to the city. (And which, because of boffo sales after its closing was announced, also got a little reprieve, in the form of an eight-week extension.)
Egged on by its imminent disappearance, I saw “Phantom” for the first time last month. The spectacle was lovable, but the singing was pretty rotten and the whole operation felt tired.
Sadly, that wasn’t so different from my reaction to the opening of “Aida” on Friday. At its supposed farewell in 2019, there was an impressive spirit to the show and cast that made you feel the Frisell staging had life in it yet. But on Friday, signs pointed to a production quietly begging to retire.
Rather than gradually, atmospherically rising, the lights on the tomb in the final scene suddenly clicked on, as if someone had flicked a switch. In the Triumphal Scene, a horse-drawn chariot caught on a looming set piece, scarily dragging it forward before being disentangled. This seemed to spook one of the horses, which started violently bridling, to snickers from the audience.
You got the feeling that the show kept needing to be coaxed back onstage. Gianni Quaranta’s grandiose set demands two intermissions, each longer than the Met’s standard half-hour; but on Friday, both lingered even more bewilderingly than usual, stretching a two-and-a-half-hour score into an evening of more than four hours.
The cast wasn’t more encouraging in enacting Verdi’s intimate love triangle, which plays out amid the sprawling context of war between ancient Egypt and Ethiopia. Only the sensibly sturdy bass Alexandros Stavrakakis, in the small part of the Egyptian king, was fully satisfying.
As the high priest Ramfis, the forceful bass-baritone Christian Van Horn’s tone, grayish at first, did gain warmth and color as the performance went on. And as the jealous princess Amneris, the mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova delivered a stout, passionate climactic Judgment Scene after an unsettled start to the opera.
But the baritone George Gagnidze, as Aida’s father, Amonasro, sounded squeezed throughout the evening. And the tenor Brian Jagde bellowed out unflagging but unlyrical sound as Radamès, the warrior torn between his love for Aida and his duty to his country.
Most worrying, despite some effusive high notes and a sympathetic presence, the soprano Latonia Moore sounded ragged in the title role, her voice weakening by the ends of phrases, separated by big gulps of breath. “O patria mia,” Aida’s great Act III aria, was crooned and disjointed.
While the conductor Paolo Carignani, who kept the orchestral textures clear on Friday, presides over the whole run this season, shifting rosters of singers will perhaps spice things up. Michelle Bradley takes over as Aida next month, overlapping with the commanding Anita Rachvelishvili, who returns to the Met as Amneris on Dec. 13 for six performances. Luca Salsi and, especially, Quinn Kelsey are promising interpolations as Amonasro for a handful of performances each this winter. Marcelo Álvarez sings Radamès in the spring, 25 years after his Met debut.
As for the new “Aida” coming in a couple of seasons, it will be directed by Michael Mayer, best known for his work in theater, like the fusty “Funny Girl” currently on Broadway. For some reason, he has been tagged by the Met as a Verdi specialist. His 2013 “Rigoletto,” since replaced, jazzily but incoherently updated the story to 1960s Las Vegas. Even worse is his “La Traviata,” which drowns in garish theme-park-princess crinolines even talented artists like the full-voiced soprano Nadine Sierra earlier this season.
So it’s with some trepidation that I say — one more time, with feeling — goodbye and thank you to the Frisell “Aida,” one of the company’s last remaining connections to an era of applause-garnering sets and regularly sold-out houses. But the inescapable message on Friday: It’s time.
Continues through Jan. 7, and again in April and May, with different casts at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.