11/26/2012 07:54 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2013

Met Opera: "Aida" Demonstrates Anew What Makes Opera Grand

If you've ever wondered why they call it "grand" opera, the magnificent Met Opera production of Verdi's Aida, which returned to the stage Friday night in an exhilarating performance that included two house debuts and a last-minute stand-in, can show you what the fuss is all about.

Arriving in time for the holiday season, during which it will be presented nine more times through December and shown in 64 countries around the world as part of the Met's Live in HD series on Dec. 15, this production is a reminder why Verdi's great Egyptian triumph has captivated audiences for 140 years.

The revival provided the vehicle for the Met debut of the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title role and a return of the American tenor Carl Tanner, who was the backup for the part of Radames, in only his second appearance at the house. Each sang impressively and with Fabio Luisi conducting the virtuosic Met opera, the performance made the old war horse seem like a young colt.

It was Aida that brought Verdi out of a brief retirement. After the success of Don Carlos in Paris in 1867, Verdi was living the life of gentleman farmer at his estate in Sant'Agata, turning down one proposal after another for a new work. In early 1870, however, he received a synopsis of a story set in ancient Egypt by a French archeologist named Auguste Mariette. It piqued his imagination and by that summer he was at work on a new score. Aida had its premier on Christmas Eve, 1871, at the Cairo Opera House and has been a favorite of opera lovers ever since.

The story, which has no basis in historical fact, nonetheless has all the ingredients for grand opera. Radames, a young Egyptian army officer, is in love with Aida, an Ethiopian princess who is now the slave of Pharaoh's daughter, Amneris. Unfortunately, Amneris is also in love with Radames and when he is named to lead the Egyptian army into battle against the Ethiopians, it sets up a fatal conflict between love and patriotic duty.

Verdi offered something for every musical taste in Aida. There are showcase arias, rousing choruses, trios, a haunting "Egyptian" theme, and of course the majestic Triumphal March that many Americans may recognize as the music that accompanied their walk across the stage to get their high school diploma.

Monastyrska was stunning as Aida in her Met debut. She has a strong, rich voice that can soar on an aria like "Ritorna vincitor," but also convey great emotion, as in the stirring "O patria mia," and warmth in the love duets and the final entombment scene. Her Aida is a stately presence, a woman who knows she is a princess though circumstance has made her a slave to her rival.

Tanner is a press agent's dream. A former truck driver and bounty hunter from Virginia, he made his Met debut, also as a last minute fill-in, last year in a performance of La Fanciulla del West. He has a powerful tenor voice that won the audience with the opening aria "Celeste Aida" and solidified it as the evening went on.

Olga Borodina is commanding as Amneris, full of anguish as a woman rejected in love and seeking revenge. Alberto Mastromarino delivers a solid performance as Amonasro, the Ethiopian king, and the bass Stefan Kocan is a voice of doom as Ramfis, the Egyptian high priest. In the other house debut, Miklos Sebestyen sang the role of pharaoh regally.

The other star attraction of the Met's Aida is Sonja Frisell's production which is as dazzling today as it was when it premiered in 1988, with Gianni Quaranta's awesome sets of hieroglyphic-adorned columns and giant statues of Egyptian deities, one of which towers into the flies so that only its legs show. Dada Saligeri's costumes feature elegant robes trimmed in gold and King-Tut blue that make even the extras look like they had just stepped off a temple wall, along with the pharaoh's bowling-pin crown and Amneris's viper-topped tiara.

And, of course, the Met's triumphal march at the end of Act II, with its prancing horses, parade of soldiers and captives, cart of dead bodies, horse-drawn chariot, and trumpeters standing atop a palace wall is one of the great pageants in all opera. A bonus for the Live in HD audiences will be seeing how the Met stagehands move all that massive scenery around between acts and keep the extras and horses moving across the stage.