Verdi’s Aida (1871)

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Source: Giuseppe Verdi, Aida by Antonio Ghislanzoni, music by Giuseppe Verdi, edited with an introduction by W.J. Henderson (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1911). Chapter: INTRODUCTION.

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VERDI’S “Aïda” has come to be the most popular of his operas in this country and one of the most loved of all Italian lyric dramas. The gorgeousness of the coloring in its oriental pictures, the kaleidoscopic succession of brilliant scenes, the ballets, processions, the glitter of court life and “the pomp, the pride, the circumstance of war” unite with its music to make it an opera for the people as well as for the more conservative connoisseur. The fluent melody of its score appeals to popular taste, while the technical skill shown in the arrangement of its general plan and the harmonious disposition of all its details arouse the admiration of the most critical observer.

This story is well suited to operatic treatment and the history of the conception and development of the work is interesting. The action of the opera takes place in Memphis and Thebes, Egypt, in the days of the Pharaohs. The drama begins in the palace at Memphis. Ramphis, the high priest, informs Rhadames that the Ethiopians have arisen against Egypt and that Isis has selected the commander of the defending force. When the Priest has finished, Rhadames declares that he would gladly go forth to conquer, could he but return to Aïda, the slave of the King’s daughter, Amneris. Aïda and Amneris come upon the scene, and we learn that the princess suspects the existence of the passion between the other two and is jealous. She determines to have revenge if she finds that she is right in her surmise. The court assembles and the King receives a messenger, who announces that Amonasro is leading the Ethiopians. The King announces Rhadames as his General and Amneris gives him a banner. Only Aïda knows that Amonasro is her father, and when all the others have gone, she remains to pray to her gods for pity.

The next scene shows us Rhadames in the temple receiving his consecrated sword from the hands of Ramphis, the Priest, while the ceremonials of adoration proceed. With the beginning of the second act the incidents are transferred to Thebes. The war is over and the army is about to return. Amneris reclines in her apartment and grieves over the absence of Rhadames. When Aïda enters, Amneris, seeking to probe her heart, tells her that Rhadames is dead. Aida reveals her love and Amneris breathes vengeance.

The second scene takes place in the great square. Rhadames returns triumphant, bringing several Ethiopian prisoners. One is Amonasro, but the conquerors do not know that he is the King. When Rhadames learns that Amonasro is Aida’s father, he joins others in begging for his life. The King, after listening to the advice of the Priest, releases all save Amonasro, who is condemned to remain in slavery with his daughter. The King then precipitates the tragedy of the opera by giving the hand of Amneris to Rhadames in recognition of his great national services.

The third act is in one scene and takes place on the banks of the Nile. Amneris enters the temple of Isis to pray on the eve of her marriage. Aïda comes to keep an appointment with Rhadames and bewails her expatriation. Amonasro enters and commands her to use her power over Rhadames to make him disclose the Egyptian plans. She refuses, but in a stormy duet her father overpowers her reluctance. He retires and Rhadames enters. Aïda wooes him to flight and consenting he reveals the Egyptian plans. Amonasro now comes forward, and, saying that he has heard the secret, informs Rhadames that he is the King. Amneris comes from the temple just in time to overhear some of this. Amonasro attempts to stab her, but is prevented by Rhadames, who sends Aïda and her father away, while he remains to surrender himself to the Priest.

The fourth act has two scenes. The first takes place in a room adjoining that in which Rhadames is to be tried. When he is brought on at the request of Amneris, she begs him to give up Aïda so that she herself may save him. He refuses. She says that Amonasro has been slain and that Aïda has fled, but he repulses her. She now falls into despair over the outcome of her own actions. Rhadames is tried by the Priests and condemned to be buried alive. As the Priests pass out with their prisoner Amneris curses them.

The second scene shows us the vault under the temple and also the temple above it. Rhadames, shut in the vault, prays for Aida, but she has succeeded in gaining admittance to the tomb in order that she may share his fate. They sing out their lives in the suffocating place, while above them the priestesses of the temple chant and Amneris kneels in grief on the stone which seals the tomb.

This admirable operatic story was utilized by the composer in a work which astounded the entire world by its revelation of unexpected qualities of his genius and which revolutionized modern Italian opera. Giuseppe Verdi was born at the village of Roncole, near Busseto, Italy, on Oct. 9, 1813. It was the year in which Wagner was born, and these two men were destined to reform the whole method of operatic composition in the later years of the nineteenth century. Verdi received some instruction from local musicians and finally in 1831 applied for admission to the conservatory at Milan, but the director rejected him on the ground that he had no talent for music. So he studied privately in the Lombardy metropolis and later went back to Busseto as organist and conductor of the local musical society.

In 1838, with a wife and two children, he went to Milan with an opera, and Merelli, director of La Scala, produced it. Then he commissioned Verdi to write more operas. The first, a comic opera, had to be finished just when the composer had lost his wife and children. Small wonder that it was a failure. Verdi wished to abandon composition, but Merelli persuaded him to go on, and he wrote his “Nabucco,” which was applauded at La Scala on March 9, 1842. Other compositions followed, but Verdi’s first general success was “Ernani,” brought out in 1844 and performed in 15 places within nine months.

Several operas of no striking force, and now forgotten, except for occasional revivals in Italy, were now written by Verdi, and then he suddenly seemed to find himself, for in 1851 he wrote “Rigoletto” in 40 days, and this popular work was followed by “Il Trovatore,” first sung in Rome, Jan. 19, 1853, and “La Traviata,” produced in Venice, March 6, of the same year. These operas raised Verdi at once to the position of the foremost living composer of Italian opera, and if he had never produced anything else, they would have ensured for him a place beside such masters as Donizetti and Bellini and perhaps even Rossini.

These works are classed by commentators as belonging to the second period of Verdi’s artistic development, which is characterized by tremendous vigor and a remarkable melodic fecundity, together with certain rather indefinite powers of characterization. But the Verdi of clear-cut characterization and keen psychological insight was not disclosed till later.

For eighteen years he continued from time to time to put forth new works, but none of them made any lasting impression. “Un Ballo in Maschera” (Rome, Feb. 17, 1859) is sometimes given outside of Italy, but its silly libretto is inimical to its wide acceptance. “La Forza del Destino” (St. Petersburg, Nov. 10, 1862) is mentioned with bated breath by some opera-goers of the older generation, but it has been permitted to repose in silence in this country since its revival by Mapleson at the Academy of Music many years ago.

In this last opera, however, the student can discern the beginnings of a transition. Verdi’s instrumentation had been cheap, and for the most part vulgar and noisy. It was generally no more than a dynamic development of the “big guitar,” into which Donizetti had made the orchestra. Those who listened attentively to the instrumental portions of “Il Trovatore” and “Rigoletto” will readily understand what is meant by this. But in “La Forza del Destino” one finds sudden displays of real skill in the use of orchestral color for the purposes of dramatic delineation. The infrequent hints at progress toward finesse in the handling of instruments here became almost promises, and yet no one was prepared for the striking advance revealed in the score of “Aida” in 1871.

This opera marked the entrance of Verdi upon a new phase of his artistic career. It instantly set him apart from all other Italian composers. It made him the father of the contemporaneous school of “young Italians” from Mascagni to Puccini. None of them have added anything to the materials or methods applied to the constitution of Italian opera by Verdi in his “Aida.”

This opera was followed by the famous Manzoni Requiem, produced in 1874. In 1887 at Milan on Feb. 5 was given for the first time his next opera, “Otello” and again connoisseurs all over the world learned that this wonderful old man was making progress in his art. But he was to amaze the world yet once more, for in 1893, at the age of 80, he produced his comic opera “Falstaff,” which has been awarded a place beside Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger.” This stupendous tour de force was his last, for thereafter he wrote only some religious music (very noble music, too), but turned his face away from the glitter of the theatre. He lived in the seclusion of his Villa St. Agata at Busseto and there he passed away on Jan. 27, 1901.

Let us now bestow a little more particular attention on the circumstances in which “Aïda” was created, first performed and accepted by the world as a masterpiece. Ismail Pacha, khedive of Egypt, a man of picturesque personality and brilliant ambition, ardently desired to be known as a leader in the polite world of European aristocracy. Among other enterprises looking to the accomplishment of his aim, he undertook the building of the opera house at Cairo. It was opened with much ceremony in 1869. But Ismail Pacha was not satisfied. What his opera house needed to make it celebrated throughout the world was a new opera on an Egyptian subject, expressly composed for this theatre by the most celebrated living master. An emissary was despatched to Verdi, who did not regard the proposition with favor. Not wishing to affront a potentate by a direct refusal, he named a price of such size that he was certain the Khedive would be frightened off, but Ismail accepted the terms without hesitation. Then Verdi began to contemplate his task, and as the possibilities of splendid musical color offered by an Egyptian subject opened before his mind, he became enamored of the idea and entered into the project with enthusiasm.

Mariette Bey, a distinguished Egyptologist, was requested by the Khedive to find a suitable story. He did find an incident in the ancient history of the country and from it he planned the groundwork of the libretto of the opera. Camille du Locle, a Parisian, wrote out the lyrics and the dialogue in French prose. He worked at Busseto by the side of Verdi, who was thus enabled to bring to the new work his long experience in the construction of operas. The arrangement of the last scene with the double stage showing the temple and the vault under it was entirely the design of the composer. Signor A. Ghislanzoni translated the prose of du Locle into Italian and at the same time turned it into verse, suitable for musical setting. This Italian verse was afterward retranslated into French verse for Parisian performances.

Verdi began his labors with vigor and his opera was completed within the allotted time. The Khedive had offered him $20,000 for the work, and $10,000 more if he would go to Egypt to conduct the first performance. Verdi intended to do so, but when the time arrived he refused. The great master had a mortal fear of seasickness. The opera was to have been produced in 1870, but the scenery had been painted in Paris, and when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, it could not be taken out of the city. Verdi occupied himself with alterations and improvements in his opera. For one thing he eliminated a chorus in the style of his famous predecessor Palestrina, for whom all his life he had a profound admiration and of whose music he was a continual student. But he felt that the Italian ecclesiastic style was not quite suitable to the priesthood of Isis.

It was on Dec. 24, 1871, that this beautiful work was first heard. The celebrated double bass player, Bottesini, was the conductor and the cast was this: Aïda, Signora Pozzoni; Amneris, Signora Grossi; Rhadames, Signor Mongini; Amonasro, Signor Steller; Ramphis, Signor Medini; the King, Signor Costa; a Messenger, Signor Bottardi. The first performance in New York took place on Nov. 26, 1873, at the Academy of Music. The cast was as follows: Aïda, Ottavia Torriani; Amneris, Annie Louise Cary; Rhadames, Italo Campanini; Amonasro, Victor Maurel; Ramphis, Nannetti, and King, Scolara. Previous to this the opera had been produced in Milan, Paris and London. It went through the musical world with great rapidity and it has preserved its early vitality in a marked degree.

Verdi was charged with submitting himself in this opera to the influence of Wagner, but the work is built on purely Italian lines. The composer did not adopt Wagner’s system of representative themes, his continuous melody, nor his type of harmony. The score of “Aïda” consists of a series of complete musical numbers, just as “Il Trovatore” or “La Traviata” does, but these numbers are artistically joined in such a way that each act produces an effect of perfect continuity. There are arias preceded by recitatives, just as there were in the days of Handel, and some of these arias have the “da capo,” or return to the first part, which was inseparable from the vocal numbers of the eighteenth century. But Verdi’s recitative is so varied, so little touched by the old styles, and so closely allied to the melodic character of the airs, that it must be classed with that fluent and declamatory recitation which constitutes the major part of a Wagner drama. Verdi’s recitative, however, is just as characteristically Italian as Wagner’s is German.

Without question it was in this triumphant demonstration of the splendid dramatic possibilities of the old Italian forms in opera that Verdi showed himself to be the leader of lyric art in his country and a teacher for all the rest of the world. The ready manner in which Leoncavallo and Mascagni adopted the entire apparatus of Verdi, contributing to opera only the novelty of condensation into one act, shows what a powerful influence he had on his compatriots. Puccini in most of his operas has faithfully followed the methods of Verdi, while in certain others, “Tosca” and “The Girl of the Golden West,” he has endeavored to combine with the Verdian apparatus the representative themes of Wagner.

In composing “Aïda” Verdi threw overboard the worn-out materials of his earlier style. One hears no more the simple elementary dance rhythms upon which so many of his former airs rested. Compare the style of “Ah, fors e lui,” with “O patria mia,” or that of “Il Balen” with the appeal of Amonasro in the third act. In abandoning these old dance rhythms the master also discontinued the employment of the primitive scheme of harmony so familiar in the older Italian operas. He sought to impart to his music a great depth of expression by the use of the rich variety of chord successions which had come into modern music.

It was in this department of his art that Verdi made one of his greatest strides and by it excited astonishment not only in Italy, but throughout the artistic world. Those who had never before regarded him as anything better than an unusually clever Italian opera writer now began to suspect that they were confronted by a profound master of music. Opera-goers who are well acquainted with the older works of Verdi must have noted the splendor of the harmonies in “Aïda” as compared with those of its predecessors. Doubtless many hearers attribute this harmonic richness to the opulence of the orchestration, but musicians will readily understand that the latter owes more to the former than vice versa.

The instrumentation of “Aïda” is indeed an immense advance over that of the same composer’s previous creations. The employment of delineative devices is liberal and the introduction of what are known as color effects is frequent. Naturally Verdi endeavored to create something which would strike his hearers as an imitation of Egyptian color and this had to be done in two or three ways. First and foremost it was open to the composer to sprinkle his score with ancient themes. But he preferred to make his own and to give them the necessary character.

This he could do by imitating oriental melodic sequences, and rhythms. As for the eastern rhythms we may dismiss these as of little importance in an operatic score such as that under consideration. The melodic sequences, however, are worthy of a passing note because Verdi has utilized them and with excellent effect. Not all of them are strictly Egyptian, but they are of kinds not found in western European music. Such, for example, are the song of the hidden priestesses in the temple scene, the melody of the ceremonial dance, the prefatory instrumental passage before “O patria mia” and others of similar character. These are mentioned because they are perhaps the most easily identified by the hearer. The principal numbers of the first scene of this admirable opera are the tenor air, “Celeste Aïda,” sung soon after the rising of the curtain, the stirring ensemble following the delivery of the message concerning the war, and Aïda’s beautiful air, “Ritorno vincitor.” In the second scene the chorus and dance of priestesses and the ensuing prayer, concluding with the clarion call “Immenso Phtha,” are the chief features.

The dance of the slaves in the first scene of the second act is usually enjoyed, while the duet between Aïda and Amneris is a strong example of the new dramatic style of writing introduced by Verdi in this work and imitated by many of the younger Italians. The broad mass effects of the finale of the second act are always the cause of much enthusiasm among opera-goers, but perhaps the skill of the musical development escapes many of them. The trumpets used by the marchers on the stage are not reproductions of the ancient Egyptian instruments, for these were much shorter and could probably emit only three tones of the common chord. But Verdi’s are not of the familiar kind and they serve to create an illusion.

The third act which takes place by the banks of the Nile is musically very rich. The solo of Aïda sometimes called “O cieli azzuri” and sometimes “O patria mia” is one of the most beautiful specimens of the true Italian aria to be found in all modern opera. The duet between Aïda and Amonasro is the next of the string of pearls in this scene, and this is followed by a still more captivating duet for Aïda and Rhadames. Then comes a vigorous trio, after which the act is brought to its end with the declamatory phrase with which Rhadames surrenders his sword to the Priest.

The last act has a good duet for Rhadames and Amneris and a characteristic solo for Amneris, while she listens to the trial going on in the subterranean chamber. The last important number is the duet, “O terra addio,” for Aïda and Rhadames. This is one of the most effective parts of the opera and its style is just close enough to that of Verdi’s earlier works to enable us to discern wherein the novelty of “Aïda” consists.

No description of such a masterpiece, however, can give the music lover any conception of its real greatness. The hearer who listens to it for the first time will not fail to perceive the tremendous vigor of its musical basis, nor the splendor of the spectacular qualities of its graphic and intensely theatric style. But only repeated hearings will open up to the opera-goer the unerring skill with which the master disposed his lights and shades, the dramatic instinct with which he developed his musical inventions, the psychologic insight shown in the character of the melodies themselves and the craftsmanship revealed in the arrangement of their relations to one another.

From the first dialogue between Rhadames and the Priest to the last sigh of “O terra addio” there is no moment when the music fails to embody the emotions of the drama, nor is there any when it does not succeed in enchaining the attention by its own intrinsic beauty. A true Italian, Verdi always allots the leading thoughts to the voices and his writing for the singers is entirely favorable to the display of their best powers. But he welds the voice parts and the orchestral portion into one consistent whole, which is without doubt one of the most symmetrical art works in the wide field of the lyric drama.

W. J. Henderson.