After more than 260 performances, the Metropolitan Opera this week retired its ‘Aida’ staging, phasing out one of the company's last remaining holdovers from the last century.
The production, which premiered in December 1988, has been praised as a faithful rendition of Giuseppe Verdi's tragic saga that has long wowed audiences with its mammoth sets and extravagant costumes.
But the prestigious New York cultural institution has been repositioning itself, showcasing more modern works by women and non-white composers and updating classics to appeal to younger audiences.
The outgoing spectacle, the brainchild of English director Sonja Frisell with sets by Italian designer Gianni Quaranta, has become known especially for a triumphant march scene in Act II, a 15-minute tour de force of theatrics, with live horses, dance troupes and multiple processions.
The scene won cheers again at Thursday's night's finale featuring Soprano Leah Crocetto as the Ethiopian slave Aida and Tenor Jorge de Leon as the Egyptian military commander Radames, war-doomed lovers in ancient Egypt.
Met general manager Peter Gelb said a new staging to be presented in the 2024-5 season, would also be "spectacular," comprising sets of underground catacombs and tombs, along with eye-catching lighting effects not around in Frisell's day.
While Frisell's production is "much beloved," Gelb concluded "it would be very stimulating to have a new production."
The new production will be directed by Tony-winning theater director Michael Mayer and feature African American soprano Angel Blue as Aida, Gelb said in an interview this week.
Aida was first presented in 1871 amid a period of European fascination with Egypt following key archeological discoveries.
Quaranta, an Oscar-winning film art director, wanted to convey "monumentality," but also "a certain sense of decadence," he told AFP in an email interview.
"The ancient civilization was disappearing, as if buried by desert sand only to be rediscovered centuries later," he said.
The show's palate includes gold and a sun-bleached tan evoking a stony lost-world quality.
On opening night, Quaranta recalled in particular the throng in the second act when the Egyptian Princess Amneris' room is lowered and replaced with a descending stage of soldiers in a row with their backs to the audience, ushering in the march scene.
"There was roaring applause," said Quaranta, adding that at first you could not hear the music.
Quaranta acknowledged "disappointment" at the production's retirement, but expressed gratitude at the long run.
"I understand the theater's need to come up with another production with a different directorial and scenic point of view than that production," he said.
"However, I hope that the set design, furniture and props, as well as the costumes, will be preserved: it would be nice to re-propose this production to the next generation, maybe in 20/30 years."
Aida's score includes soul-searching arias, soft love duets and fractious trios, as well as thunderous war anthems of overwhelming power.
In key moments, the opera's main characters -- Aida, Radames and Amneris -- are set apart from a booming chorus, underscoring the personal turmoil in a warmongering society.
Conductor Paolo Carignani praised the staging as "very respectful of every part of the score."
"If you like Verdi, if you like 'Aida,' there is not a better production than this," he said.
Performance mores have changed significantly during the show's lengthy tenure. For years, white singers playing Aida and other characters routinely used paint to darken their skin, a practice that the Met has completely ended only in the last decade.
Core works in the opera repertoire, including Aida, have also been criticized for employing tropes about distant lands.
The Met's 2023-24 season will feature the most new works in the company's modern history, including an opera based on the life of Malcolm X and the first piece performed in Spanish in nearly a century.
Gelb said 19th Century classics pose challenges because works from that period "may have values that are not acceptable today."
The goal is to ensure the Met "is a vibrant living opera house... not a museum," said Gelb.
Thursday's audience included longtime Met attendee August Ventura, who went to bid a bittersweet goodbye to the show.
A Verdi devotee, Ventura praised the Frisell staging as a "production that lets the opera speak for itself."
He said the Italian master's work reveals truths that resonate today, with parallels in Aida to the Ukraine war, the refugee crisis and the links between religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism.
He described the Met's record with recent productions as mixed, adding "I wish them well and I wish the art form well."