( Originally Published 1907 )
MADAME NORDICA'S "Aida is an unsurpassed performance and always draws crowded houses, for the strange pathos of the music displays her wonderful voice to its fullest beauty.
As in "Carmen " every measure scintillates with the sunshine of Spain, so in "Aida" every phrase seems shadowed by the mysteries of Egypt. A comparative study of these two operas will forcibly impress one with the power of music to ex-press nationality. " Aida " carries one to a distant land and centuries back; but this power of breathing the musical life of ancient Egypt into the still form of a libretto is the culmination of modern art. Giuseppe Verdi, the greatest living Italian composer, had written twenty-six operas before he wrote "Aida."
A tender, wistful strain high up in the violins forms the opening of the prelude. With this first faint phrase the composer seems to awaken from her long sleep the muse of Egyptian music. Like the hero of fairy lore, Verdi, the prince of melody, has penetrated a realm of slumbering harmonies. They are at first subdued, dazed, and bewildered with themes mingled and woven together like exquisite cobwebs. The conductor's wand gently disperses these clinging meshes of sound, the curtain is lifted, and we are ushered into the musical life of an ancient civilization.
We see a hall in the palace at Memphis, and Ramphis, the high priest, converses with Rhadames, a distinguished soldier. They talk of the impending war against Ethiopia, and it is intimated that Rhadames may be chosen to lead the Egyptians. But the words and song are of little interest compared to the orchestral accompaniment. This is somber and subdued„ the notes are of equal length, and the intervals seem of geometric exactitude like the diagram of an astrologer.
Ramphis goes out leaving Rhadames joyous over the prospect of becoming a general. He thinks of his beloved Aida, to whom he will return laden with laurels. " Celeste Aida! " is the title of this great romanza. Like all love-songs it is legato, andante, and pianissimo, but at the same time noticeably original and characteristic. The harmonies are constructed with rigid grandeur, but softened and beautified by a tender melody that rests upon them like moonlight on the pyramids. While he is lost in thoughts of Aida, the Princess Amneris enters. She inquires the cause of his radiant expression, and insinuatingly wonders if it is some dream of love. Rhadames only replies that he has hopes of martial honors, and is therefore happy. The Princess secretly loves Rhadames, and her questions are based on jealousy, which is revealed in the nervous, agitated theme that accompanies this duet. Her suspicions are further aroused by the entrance of Aida. As the heroine approaches we hear again the pensive theme that opened the prelude. t takes on a new and greater meaning, for Aida is a captive slave, an exile, and the music reminds us of some great longing that vainly strives to express itself. This effect is due to the fact that the musical cadence is left unresolved.
Aida must have the dark complexion of the Ethiopian, and very few prima donnas look well under coffee - colored cosmetic ; but Madame Nordica's appearance does not suffer from the application. This Aida is beautiful, and Rhadames can scarce conceal the joy of her presence. The captive also looks down to hide her emotion. But Amneris has detected every glance, and again that jealous theme sweeps like a flame over the orchestra.
The princess addresses her slave by sisterly names, and asks the cause of her downcast looks. Aida says she grieves because of the war against her native land.
There follows a trio wherein Amneris fosters her jealousy, while Aida and Rhadames tremble lest their secret be discovered.
Sounds of martial music prelude the entrance of the king and his suite. When they are assembled a messenger comes forward to announce that the Ethiopians are marching toward Egypt's capital under the leadership of their king, Amonasro. Upon hearing this name Aida exclaims to herself, "My father! " and we thereby learn that she is a princess, but has concealed the fact from her captors. The Egyptians impulsively shout " To war ! " and Rhadames is proclaimed their leader. They sing a war-hymn which is so inspiring that even Aida joins in this prayer for victory to Rhadames. After a grand climax all go out excepting the heroine.
"Return victorious ! " She repeats this last sweeping phrase, and shudders at the words, for success to Rhadames implies defeat to her father. This distressing thought agitates the music like the passing of a great ship over tranquil waters. The ensuing melody rises and falls like waves in the wake of a vessel. Aida realizes that she can not pray for either lover or father. " Was there ever a heart so oppressed ! " Her song is like a wail, and the accompaniment introduces a pagan use of the mono-tone that gives startling effects. " Pieta, pieta ! " are the final words of Aida's great solo.
She goes off, and the scene changes to an interior view of the temple of Vulcan. t is a brilliant setting, with solid columns and golden statues, mysterious colored lights and fuming incense, priests and priestesses in glittering costumes; but the music of this consecration-scene reveals more barbaric splendor than the surroundings. The first sounds are the full, pulsating chords of a harp, and from an inner sanctum the grand priestess sings with rich soprano tones a weird refrain that is weighted with mystery. The priests in front answer in subdued, awe-hushed voices. Three times the wondrous song and answer are repeated, after which the priestesses perform a sacred dance around the altar. The music of this dreamy dance has the most astonishing progressions, but at the same time maintains an imposing solemnity. During the dance Rhadames is led to the altar, where a silver veil is placed over his head. Ramphis, the high priest, charges him with the welfare of the Egyptian army; and then follows a splendid prayer that Ramphis starts like a sacred fire. t reaches Rhadames, who sings in a higher key, and then it spreads and fills the great temple ; bassos, tenors, soloists, and chorus take it up in turn and form one mighty rondo. Like a response from heaven comes the chant of the grand priestess from within. Her inspired refrain with its harp accompaniment alternates with the exalted prayer in front. This consecration-scene has little to do with the plot of the story, but it contains some of Verdi's finest music.
Several months are supposed to elapse before the second act, which opens with a scene in the apartment of Amneris. Maids are robing the princess for a festive occasion, and we learn by their chorus that Rhadames will today return from victorious war. This scene is monopolized by the stringed instruments and female voices. A tropical indolence characterizes the choruses, with their abundant harp accompaniment. Amneris ever and anon breaks forth with an expansive theme expressing her unconquered love for Rhadames. To divert their mistress a group of Moorish slaves perform a lively, grotesque dance, for which Verdi has written music of intoxicating witchery. t is crisp as the snapping of fingers and uncivilized as the beating of bamboo reeds—a veritable savage revel that is nevertheless graceful and delicate. The chorus resume their dreamy praise of the hero, and Amneris continues her moody thoughts of love.
Like an electric flash from a sultry sky does the entrance of Aida affect the musical atmosphere. At sight of the beautiful captive, Amneris again rages with jealousy, as is plainly indicated by the conflicting themes in the orchestra. With subtle de-vices the princess seeks to entrap her rival. She pretends a deep sympathy for Aida's grief over the vanquished Ethiopians, and adds that " Egypt also has cause to mourn, for our brave leader Rhadames is among the slain." This treacherous falsehood is foisted so suddenly that Aida loses caution and reveals her emotion. Amneris cries out in fury : "Tremble, slave ! thy secret is discovered ! " She informs Aida that Rhadames lives, and that she, Pharaoh's daughter, loves the hero and "will not brook the rivalry of a slave!" Amneris threatens death as the punishment for such audacious love. The proud captive stands for a moment in defiance ; but realizing the futility of such action, she humbly pleads for pardon. In this song the composer admirably simulates a savage dearth of compass and harmony—an effect of crude simplicity that is charming and touching. The scene is interrupted by a song of victory from the streets, a signal for the festivities to begin. After commanding the Ethiopian to follow as a menial in the celebration, Amneris goes out. Aida closes the scene with the same prayer to Heaven " Pieta ! " that ended the first act.
A noisy march introduces the next scene, which represents a grand avenue in Egypt's capital. At the back of the stage is a triumphal arch and at one side a throne. The greater part of this act is spectacular, and after an opening chorus the orchestra has for some time entire charge of the music. The March from " Aida " is almost as popular as the Faust March. Its harmonies never swerve from the Egyptian type, being always stately and substantial as their architecture.
While the brass instruments are playing with full force, we witness the ceremonial entrance of the court, with innumerable priests and soldiers, trumpeters, fan-bearers, standard-bearers, train-bearers, white slaves, black slaves, flower girls, and dancing girls. There follows an elaborate ballet divertissement, clothed in music of gay pattern and gaudy design, but light in sub-stance. Five lines of continuous staccatos, like so many strings of beads, form the opening of this dance music. The salient points that impart an unmistakable Egyptian atmosphere to this composition are as follows : A savage repetition of every musical phrase, a wild predilection for the monotone, a limited variety of keys, and a preponderant accenting of the rhythm.
After the dance more soldiers enter, some more slaves, more banners, chariots, and sacred images. A chorus of welcome to the conquering hero is struck up, and it in-creases in strength and grandeur with the pageantry on the stage. t is not merely the crescendo, but the glorious swing and rhythm of the melody that so inspires enthusiasm. When at last Rhadames is borne in on a golden palanquin, the climax is stupendous. With a final " Gloria ! " shouted by every voice the hero comes forward to be embraced by the king. A group of Ethiopian prisoners are led forward, and Aida with a cry of joy recognizes her father. He has disguised himself as a common soldier, and does not wish it known that he is the defeated king Amonasro. Every one is interested in this reunion of Aida with her father, and the princess secretly rejoices to have them both in her power. Amonasro makes a noble plea for mercy, and his words are set to music that " droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven." it is like a tone-translation of Shakespeare's ode to the quality of mercy. Aida and the other captives lend their voices to the entreaty. Rhadames, who has been observing Aida but dare not address her, is moved by his love to ask for the prisoner's release. The king feels bound to grant the hero's re-quest, but finally decides to retain Aida and her father as hostages of peace. As a final honor the king presents his daughter to Rhadames, and adds that by her side he shall some day reign over Egypt. The act closes with another grand ensemble. Amneris gloats over her rival's subjection, Rhadames longs for Aida but dare not op-pose the king, and the heroine bemoans her fate. The priests, people, soldiers, and prisoners praise the king, the trumpets blare forth the Aida March, and the curtain descends.
Act III. is the most beautiful both scenic-ally and dramatically. It pictures the banks of the Nile at night. An illuminated temple is at one side, and we see the silvery river winding its way amid palms and rushes far into the distance. Not only is the landscape bathed in "softened light," but also the music imparts an unmistakable effect of moonlight. A faint violin pizzicato that vibrates but never changes position is maintained throughout the introduction, while the other instruments call up weird sounds of the night—the palm-trees rustling together and the plaintive cry of some river-bird—then all is still: only that fluttering moonbeam holds the senses.
The silence is broken by a solemn chant from within the temple, and one soprano voice soars out alone in an incantation, mysterious and imposing as an oracle. A royal barge glides to the river's bank, and Amneris with her maids and the high priest Ramphis betake themselves to the temple, where the princess offers prayers for her coming marriage. The sphinx-like song of the grand priestess is again heard, and then every sound is hushed excepting the dreamy pizzicato movement in the violins that so resembles the flitting of moonbeams.
Ere long the solitary tones of the Aida-theme arise from the stillness like a spirit of night. Never before have we realized the full beauty of this melody, for amid the blare and brightness of other harmonies it has been obscured like a sensitive flower. But here in the solitude and darkness it unfolds itself like some glorious night bloom. With cautious steps the heroine enters.
Rhadames has told her to meet him, and Aida wonders what greeting he will have for her. If it is but to say farewell, then " Nilus, the mighty river, shall quiet for-ever the exile's grief." For the present she plunges into a flood of memory about her native land, a stream of words that gently flows through a forest of beautiful harmonies. t is a song of homesickness that soothes tho it saddens.
While still under the spell of this music Aida is startled by the entrance of her father. He also sings of their distant home, but with an underlying purpose. He says they may yet return ; that it is in her power to save Ethiopia, to regain her throne, her love, and to vanquish her rival Amneris. The father has been quick to detect the love between Aida and Rhadames. Amonasro announces that his people are pre-pared to renew their attack and that success is assured if they can learn by what path the Egyptians will march. He wishes his daughter to win, by fair means or false, this secret from Rhadames. Aida at first re-fuses to act this part of treachery, where-upon Amonasro chills her with his curse. He says she is no longer his daughter, "No longer princess of Ethiopia, but a slave of the Pharaohs ! " The proud blood of the captive is aroused by this epithet. She entreats her father to recall his words, for " Patria mia ' (` my country ') is more to me than my love. I will obey." The accompaniment presents an unvaried mono-tone in the treble, while beneath it there is a pathetic melody half hidden by the upper octaves like romance suppressed by duty. Amonasro conceals himself behind palm-trees as Rhadames approaches.
Never has the joy of meeting been more admirably expressed in music than in Rhadames's greeting of Aida. t is a flight of song as spontaneous and free as the flight of a released bird. He tells her that he will not marry the princess, but must start at once on a second war; and if this time victorious he will tell the king of his love and will claim Aida as the reward of his valor. It is a brave plan, but she quickly discovers the weak point. The nervous, inflammatory theme of jealousy that accompanied Amneris in the first act again arises like a hot breath from the orchestra. Aida well knows that the princess would wreak vengeance " like the lightning of heaven." There is only one course that will unite the lovers, and this is to fly—" Fugire ! "—to fair Ethiopia, Aida's native land. She coaxes and entreats in phrases of delirious, dream-like beauty descriptive of that wondrous land--" There where the virgin forests rise 'mid fragrance softly stealing." A halcyon peace pervades the music, and its harmonies are strange and rare like the perfume of some exotic flower. Rhadames demurs, but the power of her song is irresistible, and he soon consents to leave Egypt for her sake. There is nothing half way about his decision when once made. The orchestra music rises in emphatic, resolute crescendos that are gloriously inspiring, and the singer's voice is carried forward like a rider on his steed. The music recurs to the first impulsive theme of greeting. it is given in full chords, and the soprano joins with the tenor. Every note is accented and the crescendos are augmented. Both voices and orchestra mount upward and soar away on one final, sustained note.
As the lovers start to go, Aida asks, " By what route do the Egyptians march? We must avoid them in our flight." Rhadames names the path, whereupon Amonasro steps forward announcing that " the king of Ethiopia " has overheard this important secret. He promises royal honors to Rhadames; but the hero is overwhelmed with the realization that he has betrayed his country. Vengeance falls upon him at once, for Amneris and the high priest have also overheard. They come from the temple and denounce Rhadames as a traitor. He is seized, but Amonasro and Aida escape.
The first scene of the fourth act reveals a hall in the palace. At the back is a large portal leading to the subterranean court of justice. Amneris holds the stage alone during the greater part of this scene. The orchestra preludes it with the familiar theme of jealousy that indicates the ensuing action as clearly as the title to a chapter. Rhadames is today awaiting judgment, and the princess, as a last resort, offers to secure his pardon if he will promise to forget Aida. The hero firmly refuses the proffered love of Amneris. He believes Aida is dead and prefers to die also. Very grandly does the music depict Amneris's outraged feelings. She flings a fusilade of wrathful tones, every one bearing the sting of sharp accent. But when he is gone her pride and jealousy wilt under the warmth of genuine love. She sees him led to his doom in the underground courts and hears the priests and judges chanting his name as traitor. This scene resembles the " Miserere " in " Il Trovatore." Three times the unseen chorus is followed by the soprano in front, who sings an anguished phrase that starts with a high note and ends with a palpitating, gasping decrescendo that is almost identical with the music of Leonore. The priests condemn Rhadames to be buried alive. As they again pass through the hall, Amneris pleads and implores for mercy, but it is now too late. No power can save the hero.
The last scene of the opera is very short, but it is the most important. it represents two floors, the upper one being a splendid and brilliant temple interior, while beneath it is the crypt—gloomy and terrible. This is the tomb of Rhadames, who has just been immured. The priests above are placing the final stone as the curtain rises and the hero is seen below reclining on the steps. He is thinking of Aida while resignedly awaiting his slow and awful death. Suddenly a voice calls him, and Aida herself appears to his wondering gaze. She had heard of his fate, and to prove her love has secretly returned and hidden in this tomb to die with him. The following song of the lovers has been humorously referred to as the " starvation duet." The fact of this appellation only reveals how celebrated is the composition. t is more generally known as "the duet from `Aida.' " There are other duets in the opera, but when an-other is meant it is designated ; this is the great one. Its pathetic harmonies are mingled with the solemn chant of the grand priestess in the temple above and the music of a sacred dance. Aida becomes delirious, and sees in her dreams the gates of heaven opening. Indeed, the music is exquisite enough to make any one dream of heaven. When Madame Nordica sings it, the whole scene seems real and so sadly beautiful that your own heart too almost stops its beating. With soft, sweet tones and bated breath Aida sings till she dies.
Instead of closing with a crescendo, as do most operas, the final of " Aida " becomes ever softer and fainter, like a departing spirit. The brass and wood instruments have long since retired, only the violins and harp keep up a gentle vibrating accompaniment like the flutter of cherubs' wings. The curtain descends very slowly, and the last notes of the violin are written doubly pianissimo. The muse of Egyptian music glides away as silently as she came.