From the Archives: Aida at the Met
By Peter Clark
If any single opera is most associated with the Metropolitan Opera, it would be Verdi’s Aida. The monumental exotic scenes and passionate human dramas, all set to soaring melodic music, are the epitome of the grand opera an audience expects at the Met. That’s probably why Aida was the most performed opera in the repertory until the popularity of Franco Zeffirelli’s La Bohème production gave that opera an edge in the total number of performances in recent years.
The first of the Met’s eight Aida productions premiered in 1886 and was sung in German, with the eminent Wagner disciple Anton Seidl conducting and Therese Herbert-Förster, wife of famed operetta composer Victor Herbert, in the title role. After Italian opera returned to the Met in 1891, Aida became a repertory staple. From the 1893–94 season until 1944–45, Aida was in repertory for every Met season. Even after that long stretch, there was rarely a season without it; only one season between 1945 and the end of the Rudolf Bing regime in 1972 did not include Aida.
Among the fabled artists of the 1890s who enjoyed acclaim in Aida were one of the first American star sopranos, Lillian Nordica (pictured above); the great Wagnerian soprano Lilli Lehmann; the creators of the roles of Otello and Iago in Verdi’s Otello, Francesco Tamagno and Victor Maurel; and the most admired tenor of the period, Jean de Reszke. The latter was also the most famous Siegfried, Tristan, Faust, and Roméo of the day, and a handsome matinee idol with an immense following.
In 1908, Giulio Gatti-Casazza became General Manager of the Met and brought with him Arturo Toscanini as his chief conductor. The Italian team opened their first season with a new production of Aida (pictured above) featuring elaborate sets designed by Milanese artists Mario Sala and Angelo Parravicini and costumes by Maison Chiappa. Toscanini conducted a cast that presented renowned Czech soprano Emmy Destinn in her Met debut, and four of the company’s biggest stars: Louise Homer, Enrico Caruso, Antonio Scotti, and Adamo Didur. It was a fitting inauguration of the longest managership in Met history; Gatti-Casazza remained General Manager until 1935.
A new production in 1923, with sets by Parravicini and costumes by Ethel Fox, lasted in the Met’s repertory for nearly three decades until Rudolf Bing commissioned a new production in 1951 from director Margaret Webster and designer Rolf Gérard. The Radamès in 1923 was Giovanni Martinelli, who holds the record for the most appearances in that demanding role, with 123 performances. Zinka Milanov (pictured below), who sang Aida in the premiere of the Webster production of 1951, holds the record for the title role with 75 performances.
Subsequent Aida productions premiered in 1963 (by Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn), in 1976 (by John Dexter, David Reppa, and Peter J. Hall), and in 1988 (by Sonja Frisell, Gianni Quaranta, and Dada Saligeri). These Aida casts have been filled with legendary artists too numerous to list here. But it should be noted that Frisell’s staging is the longest lasting Aida production in Met history.