The granddaddy of all grand operas, Verdi's Aida is the next installment in the acclaimed Met "Live in HD" series. Come to Virginia Western Community College early for an "opera insights" talk. I'll introduce this great opera at 12:30, prior to the 12:55 curtain.
The Met website is a great resource for photo and video galleries of its productions, and synopses, articles and interviews. Here's the link for this week's HD broadcast:
Aida has been an audience favorite since its premiere in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871. It has always been a Met staple, and some of the most distinguished artists of the past century have championed it: conductors like Toscanini, Karajan, Solti and Levine, and tenors such as Caruso, Pavarotti and Domingo. Great sopranos from Emmy Destinn to Maria Callas and Leontyne Price have made Verdi's most dramatic heroine among their signature roles.
For all its grandeur - the "triumphal scene" of Act II, replete with march, parading elephants and a chorus of over 200 singers and dancers is the most famous concerted scene in opera - Aida is an intimate relationship drama. And like many such operas, Aida involves a dramatically charged love-triangle.
The heroic tenor Radames (Roberto Alagna) has been promised to the Pharoah's daughter, Amneris (Dolora Zajick in the photo above, sung by Olga Borodina in this run). Radames is in love with "Celeste Aida" (Heavenly Aida), the Ethiopian slave of Amneris. Aida's father is the king of Ethiopia, Amonasro, the arch enemy of Radames, Amneris and Egypt. Thus the baritone's presence gives Verdi yet another triangle - that between Father and Daughter and Daughter and Tenor!
The synopsis (from the MET site) is copied below. I will conclude with a few observations about Verdi's central musical dramatic principle, the parola scenica, the "scenic word." Verdi harangued his librettists across his long career about finding a concentrated, condensed, dramatically potent image for each scene that would enable him to unlock the musical drama opera requires. In Verdi's operas, these "scenic words" are frequently the names of arias or a key word or phrase that encapsulates a scene.
The tenor's first aria, "Celeste Aida" is the first example (and it comes at the very top of the opera). The top of Act III features Aida's most famous aria, "O patria mia" (Oh, my country). It captures Aida's torturous conflict between her love for her Father and homeland and her love for Radames.
Aida's first aria is one of the most brilliant uses of the parola scenica in all of opera. As Radames is named captain of the Egyptian army in the impending battle with Ethiopia, Amneris enjoins him to "return victorious." The entire ensemble of this first grand scene repeats, "Ritorna vincitor." After the crowd disperses, Aida sings her impassioned aria, "Ritorna vincitor," spelling out the conflicting loyalties that will drive the drama. That threefold repetition, at one master-stroke, distills the sprawling grand drama into two words.
Books have been written about this most beloved of grand spectacles doubling as an intimate and tragic love story. From the highly concentrated prelude and the great arias that introduce the major players, through the triumphal march and "exotic" dances and scenes - from the double triangles of conflict and drama to the final and fatal conclusion - Aida is opera at its best.
Egypt, during the reign of the pharaohs. At the royal palace in Memphis, the high priest Ramfis tells the warrior Radamès that Ethiopia is preparing another attack against Egypt. Radamès hopes to command his army. He is in love with Aida, the Ethiopian slave of Princess Amneris, the king’s daughter. Radamès dreams that victory in the war would enable him to free her and marry her (“Celeste Aida”). But Amneris loves Radamès, and when the three meet, she jealously senses his feelings for Aida. A messenger tells the king of Egypt and the assembled priests and soldiers that the Ethiopians are advancing. The king names Radamès to lead the army, and all join in a patriotic anthem. Left alone, Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and loyalty to her native country, where her father, Amonasro, is king (“Ritorna vincitor”). She prays to the gods for mercy.
In the temple of Vulcan, the priests consecrate Radamès. Ramfis orders him to protect the homeland.
Ethiopia has been defeated, and Amneris waits for the triumphant return of Radamès. When Aida approaches, the princess sends away her other attendants so that she can learn her slave’s private feelings (Duet: “Fu la sorte dell’armi”). She first pretends that Radamès has fallen in battle, then says he is still alive. Aida’s reactions leave no doubt that she loves Radamès. Amneris, determined to be victorious over her rival, leaves for the triumphal procession.
At the city gates the king and Amneris observe the celebrations and crown Radamès with a victor’s wreath (Triumphal scene: “Gloria all’Egitto”). Captured Ethiopians are led in. Among them is Amonasro, Aida’s father, who signals his daughter not to reveal his identity as king. Radamès is impressed by Amonasro’s eloquent plea for mercy and asks for the death sentence on the prisoners to be overruled and for them to be freed. The king grants his request but keeps Amonasro in custody. The king declares that as a victor’s reward, Radamès will have Amneris’s hand in marriage.
On the eve of Amneris’s wedding, Ramfis and Amneris enter a temple on the banks of the Nile to pray. Aida, who is waiting to meet Radamès in secret, is lost in thoughts of her homeland (“O patria mia”). Suddenly Amonasro appears. Invoking Aida’s sense of duty, he makes her promise to find out from Radamès which route the Egyptian army will take to invade Ethiopia (Duet: “Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate”). Amonasro hides as Radamès enters and assures Aida of his love (Duet: “Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida”). They dream about their future life together, and Radamès agrees to run away with her. Aida asks him about his army’s route, and just as he reveals the secret, Amonasro emerges from his hiding place. When he realizes that Amonasro is the Ethiopian king, Radamès is desperate about what he has done. While Aida and Amonasro try to calm him, Ramfis and Amneris step out of the temple. Father and daughter are able to escape, but Radamès surrenders to the priests.
Radamès awaits trial as a traitor. He believes Aida to be dead but then learns from Amneris that she has survived. Amneris offers to save him if he renounces her rival but Radamès refuses. Brought before the priests, he remains silent to their accusations and is condemned to be buried alive. Amneris begs for mercy, but the judges will not change their verdict. She curses the priests.
Aida has hidden in the vault to share Radamès’s fate. They express their love for the last time (Duet: “O terra, addio’) while Amneris, in the temple above, prays for Radamès’s soul.