Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Met in the Time of Pandemic: The Lost Season, June-September 2020, Aïda

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The summer of 2020 began with the disheartening announcement that the Met had cancelled the fall season. The company hoped to reopen on New Year’s Eve, a full seven months away. On September 23, the pandemic raging unabated, the administration had no choice but to cancel the spring 2021 season as well. The theater would be dark for another painful year.

 

Between June 1 and the end of September the Met continued to make news. Tragically, a second musician, assistant conductor Joel Revzen, had succumbed to the virus. His orchestra colleagues, furloughed since the end of March, had had to make major personal adjustments to compensate for the suspension of their $190K average salary. For its part, management anticipated a loss of revenue amounting to $100 million by the end of the year. And, to make matters worse, the Met was ineligible for the government loan program due to the magnitude of its payroll. 

 

The success of the daily streaming of titles from its archive and subsequent donations from thousands of grateful new contributors on lockdown led to the launching of a series of digital concerts at the nominal fee of $20 each. Unlike the earlier free recitals and the gala that were shot as amateur videos (see our post of April 16, 2012, https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/7211323416075256950/3307619185363703156), this new series, originating from sites proximate to the artists’ homes, was professionally recorded. The first of the seventy-five-minute performances featured Jonas Kaufmann, the Baroque library of a Bavarian abbey serving as background. He was followed by Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, and nine other Met stars in standard arias from the operatic repertoire.

On September 20, one day before the lost season of 2020-2021 had been scheduled to open with Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda, a New York Times headline read, “The Met Opera Fired James Levine Citing Sexual Misconduct.” According to this report, the company, which had dismissed Levine in March 2018, settled with its former music director emeritus for $3.5 million. So ended what the Times called “one of the highest-profile, messiest feuds in the Met’s nearly 140-year history.”  

The night of September 21, 2020 would have have been the twelfth time Aïda opened a Met season. And in terms of titles most often programmed by the Met since its 1883 founding, Aïda ranks second after La Bohème. Verdi’s grandest opera was to have a new staging and a renowned cast: Anna Netrebko, Anita Rachvelishvili, Piotr Beczala, and Ludovic Tézier, conducted by Levine’s successor as music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Here are the selections we have chosen for this post, three magnificent duets, all performed in the 1960s, one of opera’s most fabulous eras.

The first is the Amonasro/Aïda duet. The claims of patriotism, patriarchy, and paternity come together in the Act III confrontation between the Ethiopian king and his daughter. Amonasro evokes their home, accuses Aïda of disloyalty to fatherland and father and, after a struggle, exacts the promise to betray her beloved Radamès, leader of the Egyptian troops. In a commercial recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan, Renata Tebaldi and Cornell MacNeil are brilliant adversaries in this epic conflict between duty and love.



The Amneris/Radamès Act IV duel, unlike the Amonasro/Aïda duet, is a combat between equals. The jealous Egyptian princess exhorts Radamès, on trial for treason, to save himself by proclaiming his innocence--at the cost of endangering the Ethiopian princess he loves. Unlike Aïda, Radamès does not give in. Mezzo Rita Gorr conveys the fury and despair of Amneris with unusual restraint. In this commercial recording conducted by Georg Solti, Jon Vickers is Radamès.


In the opera’s final scene, Radamès has been condemned to death and Aïda joins him in the tomb that closes in on their last moments. In the love duet “O terra addio (Farewell, O Earth)” they look ahead to the Heaven that awaits them and back on the vale of tears they are leaving behind. In this excerpt, drawn from a live performance, both principals float ethereal high pianissimi. Verdi specialist Carlo Bergonzi was a frequent Met Radamès; Aïda is Leyla Gencer whose long international itinerary did not include a stop at the Metropolitan, alas. Their stock gestures, troublesome on video, would not have distracted the audience seated in the vast space of Verona’s Roman arena unduly. At the very end we see and hear mezzo Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris.