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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Verdi Project: Aida

Love, warfare, intrigue and oh yes, the pyramids.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A performance of Aida in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza, March 2018.

Throughout his career, Giuseppe Verdi was determined to follow in the footsteps of other Italian composers (most notably Rossini and Donizetti) and conquer the Parisian stage. However, his attempts at grand opera: Jerusalemme, Les vepres Sicilienes and Don Carlos were met with indifference. It was with Aida, set to an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni that Verdi would incorporate the lessons of grand opera in a work that combines private anguish and public spectacle and still packs opera houses today.

Aida was the last opera to be commissioned before Verdi entered a temporary retirement. It was commissioned by the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo, Egypt, by the Khedive of that country. After a two-year delay, the opera premiered in 1871 before an audience of VIPs. However, Verdi himself considered the "real" premiere of the opera to be on the stage of La Scala in 1872. It quickly became an international sensation. Thanks to its combination of a sad, moving story, thrilling public spectacles (the grand opera element) and some of Verdi's most inspired music, it has never left the repertory.

In the late 19th century, Egypt and Egyptology became the rage in Europe. The translation of the Rosetta Stone and the discoveries of ancient tombs and treasures along the Nile influenced art, style, architecture and music. Verdi, who had set most of his operas in Europe had flirted with exotica in early works like Nabucco (set in Babylon) and Alzira (set in South America) but the score of Aida represented a departure. He made effective use of harps, struck percussion and five note scales to spice the music with just enough difference that the listener imagines the breezes of a foreign land, even if the grand triumphal procession owes more to the Roman Empire than the Old Kingdom.

If you're an opera producer and can afford to mount a large production, Aida is your meal ticket.  It has been presented on the stage of the Met more than any other opera, and still gets performances in Egypt itself: pricey affairs in an amphitheater in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The work requires choruses, crowd scenes and the famous Triumph in Act II, depicting the return of a victorious Egyptian army from war with Ethiopia. However, all this spectacle is window dressing for a simple, agonizing story: a love triangle between the Pharoah's daughter, a gormless Egyptian military officer and the title character: an Ethiopian princess who lives as a palace slave.

The opera's opening establishes that Radames is in love with Aida, who cannot risk a public display of affection. That's because her mistress, the Princess Amneris is dead set on marrying Radames. This triangle reaches its breaking point when Aida's father, the Ethiopian King Amonasro, is captured. He manipulates his daughter to persuade Radames to give up a key military secret. Radames is arrested, tried and sentenced to death by suffocation. Aida (somehow) joins him in the tomb and they slowly expire, using up their oxygen while singing "O terra, addio."

The road to pyramidal suffocation has some of the greatest music Verdi ever wrote. The public scenes (the temple finale of Act I and of course the triumph) are contrasted with the private anguish of the two female leads. Aida is a fairly standard tragic heroine, torn between her love of her homeland and her father and her loyalty to Radames. She has two great solo numbers: the "Ritorno vincitar" monologue in the first act and the formal aria "O patria mia" sung on the banks of the Nile. Radames is a stock figure too, but gets "Celeste Aida", a number that tenors always spoil by singing the last high note at full forte instead of the diminuendo called for in the score.

Amneris undergoes a real evolution: from a one-note jealous would-be lover to someone who realize that Radames is being tried and sentenced unfairly. The opera's last scene, with the suffocating lovers below and Amneris at the temple altar praying for peace, is one of the most moving tableaux in any opera. Finally there are three great roles for the lower male voices: Amonasro, who is one of the most toxic of Verdi's many father figures, the basso priest Ramfis, who is bloodthirsty and a second cousin to the Grand Inquisitor from Don Carlos, and the King of Egypt, who gets one impressive chorus to lead: the martial "Su del Nilo."

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats