Anna Netrebko puts mark on Met season with her Aida

Anna Netrebko, left, sang magnificently in Wednesday's opening of Verdi's "Aida" at The metropolitan Opera in New York. Only one other member of the cast matched her: the mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, right, who was a molten-voiced, impetuous and, in crucial moments, affectingly vulnerable Amneris.

NEW YORK — Last spring at the Metropolitan Opera, the soprano Anna Netrebko took on the title role of Puccini's "Tosca" for the first time. She claimed that touchstone part for her own, and put her mark on the whole season.

On Wednesday at the Met, Netrebko did it again, this time in the title role of Verdi's "Aida." She is still fairly new to this challenging part, which she introduced at the Salzburg Festival a year ago. There was something fresh and exploratory about her performance Wednesday. Yet it also felt fully formed, dramatically deep. And she sang magnificently.

Only one other member of the cast matched her: the mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, who was a molten-voiced, impetuous and, in crucial moments, affectingly vulnerable Amneris. I've seen "Aida" more times than I can count. But the crucial scene in Act II when Amneris tries to discover whether Aida, her slave (and actually the daughter of the enemy king), might be her secret rival in love for the Egyptian warrior Radames, felt newly intense and unpredictable.

That Rachvelishvili was an outstanding Amneris was no shock. Her performances at the Met in recent years in "Carmen" (her 2011 debut), "Il Trovatore" and "Prince Igor" made her potential in this repertoire clear. But Netrebko, who started off as a lyric soprano, has been more of a surprise as she's moved into challenging bel canto repertory and weightier and more dramatic roles. This Aida proved yet again that she knows what she is doing.

Netrebko seemed at once a young woman, in helpless love with the enemy, and a captive princess, indignant and agonized over what to do to help her people. All this came through in her great Act I aria, "Ritorna vincitor," when Aida, having lent her voice to the throngs of Egyptians wishing Radam s success in battle, is left alone to confront the bitterness of her dilemma: To pray for his safety is to curse her countrymen.

At this stage of her career, Netrebko's voice abounds in richness, depth and dusky colorings. Yet there are still elements of the bloom and sweetness from her days as a lyric. In climactic outbursts, when she summoned all her smoldering power, Netrebko sent phrases slicing through the brassy orchestra and into the house. Yet in plaintive passages, the melting warmth of her tone and the supple way she shaped long lines held you in thrall.

Her voice also retains aspects of the slightly cool, focused tone characteristic of the Russian style she was raised in. This distinguishes her Verdi and Puccini singing from the typical throbbing Italianate approach. On Wednesday, in "O patria mia," Aida's wrenching Act III aria, Netrebko sang the music's plaintive, long-spun phrases with a subdued yet penetrating beauty that recalled the great Leontyne Price, who once owned this role.

The weak link in the cast was the tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, who bellowed his way through the role of Radam s. He certainly had steely power when called for, whether pledging to rout Ethiopian foes or crying in despair when, entombed alive as a traitor, he discovers that Aida has hidden herself with him. But his coarse, wobbly singing had little subtlety during lyrical passages.

The baritone Quinn Kelsey was stalwart and virile-voiced as Amonasro, Aida's father. There were solid performances from Ryan Speedo Green as the Egyptian king and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Ramfis, the high priest. The conductor, Nicola Luisotti, led a performance of bold contrasts and rich colorings, though marred by untidy execution and ensemble glitches.

After the gaudy, confused new production of "Samson et Delila" that opened the Met season Monday, it was refreshing to re-encounter the old-fashioned grandeur of the 30-year-old Sonja Frisell "Aida" production, with its multitiered sets depicting sandy ancient walls and towering statues of gods and pharaohs.

The Triumphal Scene, as usual, was an endless parade of costumed supernumeraries and live horses. But the real triumphs were Rachvelishvili and, especially, Netrebko. May she keep surprising us.