French and German Influences
Part of Aida’s everlasting allure is its superb blending of French and Italian styles. Created outside the confining vacuum of the Paris Opéra, Verdi was able to be a bit more flexible with his forms. The triumphal scene may be something out of Meyerbeer, but the opera is secured by intimate scenes between two or three people and bound by opening and closing music that begins and ends with a whisper. Rather than a separate set piece, the ballet is linked to the score and to the plot — a problem in the past for the composer, who constantly bemoaned this requirement of French Grand Opéra, yet he voluntarily chose to include dance movements, another indication of the work’s intended destiny for the French stage (the ballet for Don Carlos does not share these features, though the intransigent Verdi would insist on its inclusion even on the Italian stage, if excised from its proper place, then to be played at the beginning or the end).
Verdi could not avoid comparison to Wagner, and one nagging criticism of his era was the claim that Aida displayed aspects of the German composer’s compositional style. Yet Verdi’s interest in Wagner seems only to have been of a passing nature. The two were exact contemporaries and by 1871, both were leading composers in their respective countries. Whereas Verdi might have been popular in Germany and France, however, Wagner’s music was hardly known in Italy and reviled by the French. The first Wagner opera to be premiered in Italy, Lohengrin, occurred in November 1871, after the composition of Aida had been completed (Verdi found it boring). Verdi’s then-friend, the Wagnerite conductor Mariani, spotted him at the train depot as he was preparing to attend the performance incognito, and Verdi angrily insisted on maintaining his anonymity (to no avail). That the composer also ordered a score of Tannhäuser from Ricordi in 1870 also betrays a little curiosity — he had once heard the overture in Paris and had asked Escudier about the opera’s French premiere in 1861. As this was one of the greatest disasters in operatic history, Verdi probably didn’t view the German as much of a threat.
Thus, it is hard to judge the extent of Wagner’s influence, as Aida does contain a number of recurrent melodies, not unlike Wagner’s leading motives, or leitmotifs. Nonetheless, reminiscence themes had been employed long before Wagner appropriated and codified them into his own agenda. Verdi sets forth his plan immediately in the overture. Upward-rising, yearning melodies characterize Aida throughout the opera, culminating with her Act III “O patria mia” (an afterthought, added late in the game just before the composer sent his finished score to Ricordi in August 1871, created with Stolz in mind). The first indication of this pattern is immediately evident in the opera’s opening notes, which become associated with the heroine later in the opera. The priest theme, which returns in Act IV is then played, low and dark, traveling downwards to what will become Aida’s final resting place. In the third part, the two melodies are played simultaneously, seemingly in conflict with one another. Throughout the opera, the priests are Aida’s constant adversaries, first in their intent on sending her lover to war, then to his death. The priestess (she has a name, Termouthis, in the original scenario), who sings over chorus and harp in another grand scene (Act I, scene ii) has a theme that returns at the very end of the opera, just before Radames and Aida bid their final farewell in “O terra, addio.” (This theme also exemplifies the faux local color that Verdi occasionally employs to give a sense of exoticism — of course he no idea what ancient Egyptian music actually sounded like and relied on modal variants for his tunes). One further indication of these melodies as reminiscent versus motive-based is Verdi’s decision at one point to compose a full-fledged overture, in the traditional fashion that introduces more melodies to recur later (the prelude to La traviata is one such example). He later decided against using it, though it wasn’t discarded completely, as the overture to Aida still remains in the composer’s archives.
Perhaps the most persistent themes in the opera are those of Amneris. The first, a “regal” melody in triplets occurs at her first entrance and later in the triumphal scene. Her “jealousy” theme pervades the opera almost to excess (and is perhaps the main instigator of comparisons to Wagner), most notably at the opening of Act IV. In many respects, she appears to be the most interesting character in the opera, which just as easily could have bore her name. Unlike Aida, Amneris is in every scene save one, ready to trick and connive at every turn. She uses cunning to expose her rival’s secret affair and manages to steal the attention of the triumphal scene in her betrothal to Radames. In Act III, she betrays Radames’ treason, and then spends Act IV trying to save him. By the end of the opera she again draws the spotlight, attempting to atone for her sins in prayer atop the tomb while the two lovers suffocate below. Amneris is the culmination of a new voice Verdi had been developing over the past two decades — the dramatic mezzo — and finds among her sisters Azucena (Trovatore), Ulrica (Ballo), Preziosilla (Forza) and Eboli (Don Carlos), though unlike the others, in Aida, she does not get a show-stopping aria of her own.
Cut from the same cloth, Amonasro is equally resolute. Though generally viewed as a warmongering villain, has he not, at least in part, waged the initial conflict to save Aida from captivity? It is easier to understand his rash and manipulative reaction in Act III when his daughter hesitates to bide by his wishes. The scene is one of many father-daughter scenes that populate the Verdi canon that are so often psychologically traced to the composer’s own loss of his young children. In the end, Amonasro’s impetuous behavior fittingly leads to his own demise — by blurting out his knowledge of Egypt’s secret battle plans instead of quietly slipping into the night, he seals his own untimely fate. Sharing some of her father’s traits, Aida is just as calculating, first plying Radames with her plan for escape, and then accusing him of having an empty heart if he won’t follow her to Ethiopia. In the same breath she smartly doubles the effect of her argument, stealing state secrets from her lover’s lips.
For his part, Radames is much more duplicitous in du Locle’s version of the story, and was later downsized to the more recognizable stock character, the thick-headed tenor who only understands the world in terms of love and war, seemingly robbed of any notable thematic significance and twice duped by Amonasro (first by encouraging the release of the Ethiopians, later by divulging the Napata gorge). Nonetheless even he is believed to belong to the opera’s more realistic, human portrayals so much a part of the other three principals.
Courtesy of The Minnesota Opera