Thursday, August 13, 2015

Aida: Torn Between Loyalties

On the large scale, the opera "Aida" is about a series of battles between Egypt and Ethiopia. The action takes place in Memphis, which is then the capital of Egypt. In one of these battles, the Princess of Ethiopia—that's Aida—has been captured, and she now lives as a slave, with no apparent duties, in the household of the pharaoh.

On the personal scale, the opera is about conflicted loyalties. Aida's problem is that she has fallen in love with the Egyptian general who will lead the army on its next invasion of her country. She sings touchingly of her love for her homeland and her father; she longs to return there. But her passion for the general overwhelms her, and she also longs for a peaceful life with him. She worries that he might be killed in battle, and fears that he might kill her father and brothers. Her conflicting emotions are so painful that she longs to escape in death; death is her only solace.

The general, Radamès, is not so conflicted. He has it worked out that if he can capture Ethiopia, he can win Aida for his wife, as a sort of reward. Radamès problem is that the Pharoah's daughter, Amneris, has a crush on him, and expects him to marry her. His passion for Aida is so great that he would rather be dead than live without her; for him too, death is the only solace.

It's a good thing that these folks are so eager for death, because that is the way it turns out. In the next battle, Aida's father, the King of Ethiopia, is captured and brought to the Egyptian court, where he observes the enemy general's love for his daughter. He pressures Aida to trick Radamès into telling her the route that the Egyptian army would use for its next invasion of his country. Naturally, he is overheard by Amneris, who betrays him to the priests. The priests condemn him to be entombed alive. But who should turn up in the tomb but Aida, who wants to share his fate. So the last, rather lengthy, portion of the opera shows them expiring in each other's arms, singing a poignant duet.

So the plot has a dismal trajectory, but many 19th century operas did. It's not unusual for the protagonists to end up dead, and it's not unusual for them to sing beautifully with their dying breath. The connection between love and death was taken for granted in those days, representing perfect forms of peacefulness. For the composer, the game was to see who could express passion, longing, struggle, suffering, and despair most beautifully. On that score, it's pretty hard to beat the composer of "Aida," Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Certain passages of the music popped out from the dense and somewhat comical background with a sound that was sublime, as beautiful as a blooming rose or dawn-tinged clouds.

The intensely personal arias and duets of Aida, Radamès, and Amneris are mixed with grand scenes of public ceremonies and rituals. There's one for the choosing of the general, one for sending the army off to battle, and a grand triumphal parade when they return, bringing with them prisoners of war. The set and the costumes for the the Pharaoh's court are elaborate and grand. Entertainers please the court and the audience with clever songs and dances. The triumphal parade even features live horses. "Aida" is known for its spectacle.

This particular performance, from the Metropolitan Opera in HD broadcast to local cinemas, had some drawbacks. Most importantly, Roberto Alagna, the French tenor who sang the part of the general, Radamès, is a small man, shorter than average and fairly trim; he always seems to be straining to fit a part that is too big for him. He was wearing clunky boots with inch-thick bases, but he was still shorter than the two women who adored him, who were both taller than average and quite chunky as well. The role of Aida was sung by Liudmyla Monastyrska, a Ukrainian soprano, and Amneris was sung by Olga Borodina, a Russian mezzo-soprano. Singers are cast for their voices, not for their looks. At his best, Alagna's voice is ringing and clear, noble and true. Monastyrska is capable of going from sweetly rippling high notes to growling depths with no air of strain. Borodina has a big rich voice, too commanding for the dreamy, self-involved character she was playing. The king of Ethiopia, Amonasro, was sung by baritone George Gagnidze, who tended to dominate the scene with his hammy acting.