Reflection: Elephants aren't needed; emotional depth and intellectual challenge make Aida grand | St. Louis Public Radio

Reflection: Elephants aren't needed; emotional depth and intellectual challenge make Aida grand

May 11, 2015

“Aida” is one of a group of extraordinary 19th century works of musical drama that gave opera its sometime first name, that is, “Grand.” In an all-stops-pulled-out production of “Aida,” soldiers lead chain gangs of slaves and supernumeraries wave huge feather fans, with nubile ballerinas dancing their own special ballet, plus the company of acres of choristers, plus elephants sometimes and a cast of principals with voices grand as all outdoors.

Such an “Aida” etches indelible memories on an audience member, leaving him or her either breathless with devotion or convinced that all this actually is excessive and silly.

The latter can be forgiven. Excess, wretched or not, can get in the way of fully understanding the expressions of absolutely serious convictions on the part of the composer. In more austere productions, less truly assists in demonstrating there is more — much, much more — going on just beneath the surface. Even then, beyond the sadness and collapse of an impossible love affair, there are lessons we should attend to carefully about irrational nationalism, assumptions of exceptionalism and conflicts that mirror theatrically our own wrestling with race and class and loss.

Similarly, a work of art rarely escapes mirroring its creator in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously. In the case of “Aida,” a profound sadness accompanied its composer, the revered Giuseppe Verdi, as he approached the creation of “Aida.” It was performed Thursday and Saturday by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Aida, Act 2, scene 2, set design for the Cairo premiere by Edouard Despléchin
Credit Wikipedia

On one side of Verdi was the shade of his father-in-law, father-surrogate and benefactor, Antonio Barezzi, who had died in 1867 with Verdi at his bedside. On his other arm was Francesco Maria Piave, the trusted librettist for 10 of the maestro’s operas, including “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata.” Piave suffered a stroke in 1870 and was left unable to move or to speak. Otherwise, he would have undertaken the massive project of “Aida” rather than Antonio Ghislanzoni, an Italian librettist.

But Ghislanzoni was, as the distinguished critic and author Charles Osborne noted, the sort of librettist Verdi liked — one who could be pushed around.

And indeed, as an indication of Verdi’s sprawling and acquisitive genius and of his perhaps overweening perfectionism, Osborne said much of the libretto is the composer’s own work. From its  beginning to conclusion — from the moment the Egyptian high priest Ramfis tells the young captain of the guards Radamès there will be war with Ethiopia, all the way to the opera’s haunting and heartbreaking finale — the work manifests a propulsive integration of music and words, the work of Verdi.

Together, these words and this music, plus an evident revulsion for war and its myriad consequences, take “Aida” from the backs of elephants into the realm of the philosophical and the sublime.

“Aida’s” presentation here was performed admirably in concert by St. Louis’ ever-better orchestra, by its brilliant choristers and, for the most part, the vocally impressive young soloists who sang the principal roles. Artist S. Katy Tucker provided the Egyptianate projections on the stage walls, generally to good effect. Here, our concern with this and other operas of importance is not the décor but the congress of music and words, and meanings well beyond the extraneous.

I was in the hall for “Aida” Saturday and note that the show started a few minutes late. It is an article of faith in the opera business that if anything possibly can go wrong, it will. This was one of those moments — several moments actually. A symphony spokesman said the delay was due to backstage gremlins, and we’ll take him at his word.

In fact, a few minutes is nothing in the grander scheme of things. “Aida’s” première was not minutes but almost an entire year late. The opening was stalled because the sets and costumes built in Paris could not move to Egypt — Paris was in the middle of the Franco-Prussian war and under siege. That creates a strange kinship, given that a fictional pharaonic war is the epitasis of “Aida,” and a real-life 19th century Bismarckian war interrupted its progress to the stage.

In any event, Verdi’s “Rigoletto” was substituted and opened the Khedivial Opera House in 1869. “Aida” followed finally on Christmas Eve 1871. A glamorous audience was in attendance, and its members were enraptured. “Aida” was an immediate success, and has continued to be a repertory standard until this day, with and without exotic livestock and ceremonial fans.

The story line of “Aida” in essence is familiar enough to be a cliché, and in a rather base comparison resembles wrong-side-of-the-tracks, “Leader of the Pack” love stories that end sadly, sometimes with no more than weepy breakings-up and soggy pillows,  or horribly with murders and suicides and blood or suffocation.

“Aida’s,” story, however, has royal and international trappings to ratchet up its status and move the opera from the realm of melodrama to the realm of tragedy.

To describe the story briefly, it revolves around the secret romance of the young Egyptian warrior Radamès and a kidnapped and enslaved Ethiopian royal princess, Aida.

She is the daughter of Amonosro, king of the Ethiopians, who, when we first meet the main characters, is on his way to Thebes, leading an army meant to conquer Egypt and to rescue his daughter.

Egypt takes up arms and goes to war with the Ethiopians, with Radamès leading the successful military operation.

Design for Amneris' costume for 1872 premiere at La Scala
Credit Wikipedia

Aida, enslaved, is lady’s maid to Amneris, the daughter of the king of Egypt. Amneris, not so by-the-way, loves Radamès also. She does not know of Aida’s lineage and status until later, when Amonosro is brought onto the stage in shackles and chains.

Aida is choked in an emotional and philosophical vise cranked tight by ardent love and patriarchal loyalties. Shall she mean it when she sings, with the Egyptians, “Ritorna vincitor” to cheer Radamès on? Or should she be disposed more righteously toward her own people — her patria mia, which she describes so poetically, and her beloved father, who is spending the lives of his soldiers and national treasure to vanquish Egypt and to fetch his daughter out of captivity and slavery?

Then there is the quandary faced by the bright and shining hero Radamès who’s looking for advancement in the military as well as for enduring love. What should he do when, as part of a grateful nation’s response to his vanquishing the Ethiopian armed forces, he is given the hand of Amneris and thus becomes heir apparent to the Egyptian throne? And what of Amneris, the spinster princess? Should she back off?

The dilemmas and answers, denials and deceptions — all of this can be arranged on the shelf of tragedy. Immediate situations that seem at the time intractable — loves unrequited and lost, ancient enmities fought out with wars, human and financial resources squandered for some half-baked religious idea or piece of land — these go blurry, and in retrospect fade into obscurity, to be washed away by Lethe, and quickly to be replaced by denials and assertions more ridiculous and atrocities more horrible than Giuseppe Verdi ever imagined.

Nevertheless, Verdi was a keen and intuitive observer of the human situation and probably saw no end to the malignancies of nationalism, class and racial hatreds, jealousies, greed and irrationality.

His dark, prophetic genius runs like a leaden thread through much of his vast musical and intellectual tapestry. Operas such as this one, operas that revel in sumptuousness and excess yet soar above and transcend them, matter gravely in the big cultural and political pictures we face today.

These robust works of art stand sturdy and apart from operas promoted for their vocal fireworks, transparent disguises, pratfalls, literal or metaphorical pies in the face and so forth.

“Aida,” on the other hand, digs in and exposes the emotional and moral and not at all funny pratfalls of individuals and nations, and in doing so provides opportunities for self-reflection and for societal change – in short, redemption.  

Because, as Verdi suggests in the conclusion of “Aida,” there are flickers of hope. What we hear Amneris sing at the conclusion of this rapturously beautiful but heartbreaking parable of frailty is a prayer, not for a victory over the grave, or for relief from personal grief, but for peace, for the doomed Aida and Radamès as representatives of us all.

Pace,” Amneris sings, then sings again: “Pace, pace, pace.”