Aida and her Sorrow/ Our Family at the Fascinating SD Opera Production
October 27, 2019
I heard all kinds of stories of San Diego production of Aida so I became curious....and left enchanted, inspired, happy and richer of many thoughts that the opera provoked.
Aida is one of the most personal operas, and it is in spite of the famous epic opulent march Glory to Egypt usually featuring hundreds people on the stage along with elephants, horses, camels, a ballet ensemble, and such. Nevertheless, it is actually an intimate and a touching opera. It is not only about a triangle consisting of one man loved by two women. It is about making impossible choices, decisions that however decided, suffering will ensue.
It is something we can all relate to.
The story is as follows: We are in the time of Old Kingdom in Egypt, about 2,500 BC. Egypt is in war with Ethiopia that is defeated. Victorious Egypt is bringing in many Ethiopians captives. One of them is Aida who is actually an Ethiopian princess, but she hides that fact. She becomes a slave to the Egyptian princess Amneris who is a promised bride to Radames, a chief of an Egyptian army.
Radames and Aida fall in love. Amneris finds out by intuition, and by a trick: she tells Aida that Radames died in a fight. Aida's reaction to the news becomes a proof of her love for Radames. Amneris plans a vengeance.
Ethiopia is waging war against Egypt to reclaim their captives. Egypt wins. Another group of captives is brought in and one of the prisoners is Amonastro, the king of Ethiopia, just like Aida he is also in disguise. He approaches Aida, his daughter, and tells her she must find out from her lover Radames an escape route. After much hesitations Aida asks Radames and he does tell her the safe route. Unfortunately, Amneris and a high priest Ramfis overhear them, calls the guards, Radames is condemned to be buried alive for treason. Amneris then gives him an option to renounces Aida, marry her, Amneris, and thus gain freedom. He refuses and is walled in a tomb. When he is singing his farewell to Aida and the world, Aida appears from the darkness of the tomb. She secretly snucked in to die along her lover.
It is a story of loyalty, pride, dignity and integrity. There are many situations that require almost impossible decisions: Radames goes to fight for Egypt, but knows he is killing people of his beloved Aida. (Aria Celeste Aida). Aida must pretend to root for Egypt in the war, yet if Egypt loses, her beloved loses; if Ethiopia loses, her father loses. (My favorite aria Ritorna vincerot!). Amonastro must ask Aida to sacrifice her love in order to save Ethiopian people. Aida must make that terrible choice between her country and her lover by putting Radames in danger if she is to ask him to help her country. Aida makes the decision to save her country by asking Radames for an escape route and suggesting they elope. After things go awry he is condemned, Aida chooses to die honorably along her love...
Valor, honesty, purity of character is all concealed in Aida, the beautiful princess.
San Diego production left out the glitz of the Glory to Egypt march and decided to have the set scaled to the minimum. Instead there is an orchestra on the stage along with the chorus in front of a beautiful backdrop of pyramids glistening in the orange sun. The stage is guarded by two colossal Egyptians standing proudly on the sides. The actors sing up front of the stage in beautiful lush colorful costumes made by the talented Sandra Rhodes.
The opera gained an incredibly intimate dimension of a strong drama, a drama parading rich complex characters, drama that reveals who can stand the trials of life and who can only go by with tricks and blackmail. Just like in our everyday life.
I know the opera well, was overjoyed to see it in rich production only several weeks ago in Verona, yet, I sat on the
edge of my seat yesterday. The opera opened in front of me anew, it became an appealing thought provoking drama featuring beautifully humanity, just like Shakesperean play do. The music with the orchestra on the stage sounded anew as well, I was transformed on the banks of the Nile river, especially at the opening of the 4th act. The sound of bassoon, used plentifully to set in the exotic atmosphere, was more intense that I could remember and I know why: There was a fair balance between the singers and the orchestra and the excellent chorus that all became equals.
It is Verdi in his best as he proved so many times in terms of presenting inventive gorgeous new melodies yet melodies that sound as if we heard them before, but not because they sound "ordinary", they beautifully strike a familiar chord within us.
San Diego Opera delivered somewhat risky production, but it worked miracles. I am still riding on the wings of the beautiful melodies and in spite of the minimal set, I am still warmed by the orange Egyptian sun.
Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901): It is his 26th opera, Verdi is famous, rich, respected, he is 52 years old. After Aida, he will write two more operas, Othello and Falstaff.
The opera was a commission from viceroy of Egypt Pasha Ismael to open an Italian Theater in Cairo. The theater did not open with a new Verdi's opera, but with his Rigolletto as Aida was not finished on time and the Franco-Prussian war (1871) prevented delivery of the set. It still premiered in the new theater, but later. Verdi was paid an equivalent of $200,000, a sum much bigger he ever collective for a composition!
A libretto is by Antonio Ghislanzoni (Verdi's friend and once a singer in his operas), the outline of the story is by Auguste Mariette, a famous archeologist. Development of the material was done by Verdi and by Camille Du Locle. Verdi studied intensely Egypt, had also constructed Egyptian trumpets for the originality of the sound.
Aida premiered on December 24,1871, conducted by a famous double-bas player Bottessoni. Verdi considered the premiere of Aida in La Scala in February 1872 as the Cairo premiere was not open for public, just for the government.
The premiere of Aida in Rio de Janeiro in 1886 became the most important for the famous conductor Toscanini: He was only 19, played cello in the orchestra. The conductor of the orchestra backed out of the opera and Toscanini, having a reputation of a musician with incredible memory and a knack for conducting, was asked to step in to conduct. He never returned to the pit orchestra again. He was 19 and was on verge of becoming one of the most influential conductors.
Aida belongs to the group of exotic operas as is Abduction from Serail, Samson and Dehlia, Madame Butterfly, Turandot, Lakme, Pearl Fishers, etc. All just beautiful!!