Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Program Notes, April 16, 2011

A Concert Version of Aida
Program Notes by Jeffrey Johnson

According to the Metopera database, Aida has been performed 1,115 times at the Met in the 125 years since it was first played there. This is twice as many performances as the most frequently performed opera by Mozart (Don Giovanni), and is second only to La Bohème, which has had only 100 performances more than Aida at the Met.

These statistics are surprising when one considers the monumental cost and effort required to stage a production of Aida, which is a four act opera with a typical run-time of four hours including two intermissions. Full productions require huge sets, massive crowd scenes, and enough animals onstage to populate a small zoo. It an opera of spectacles.

But there are many operas based on spectacle. What makes Aida special?

The storyline of Aida is much more elemental than lavish productions make it seem. It is a love triangle set across an explosive political divide. It is the power and grace of its story, set in unforgettable music, which is the central force in its popularity

This concert version of Aida is an alternative pathway through the opera that focuses on aspects of interaction among the three central characters. It compresses the run-time of the opera to the standard two-hour format (including one intermission) of a symphonic concert.

In a concert opera the musicians and the singers perform together onstage. This makes the music itself even more apparent and present than when it comes from the opera pit. Concert opera allows us to rediscover how intrinsic the music itself is to the impression that the singers make.

The quiet and elusive music with which this opera opens is the sonic fingerprint of Aida. It is music that strives and pushes out at boundaries. Subtle surprises continually deflect its course of motion. We learn important things about Aida through this melody before any singing takes place.

After a frozen F-sharp major chord a contrasting tune is heard. It is the opposite of Aida’s music. Its contour falls and it is presented in imitative entries that invoke the learned style. It is the processional music of the priests.

The two themes are built to combine, and as they do we hear the complex interaction between one individual and the society in which she lives.

Act I
Romanza; Celesta Aida
Rademès dreams of being the warrior who will lead Egypt to victory over the Ethiopian forces that threaten them. But he is already in love with Aida, who is a captured slave from Ethiopia in the service of the woman he is expected to marry.

In this famous aria Rademès imagines the divine character of Aida as a “mystic garland of light and flowers.” He imagines escaping with her to Ethiopia and, on a breathtaking high B-flat, he promises to build her a throne next to the sun.

Duetto and Terzetto
We meet Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt, who is in love with Rademès. She enters singing compliments to him but the most beautiful melody in the texture is not scored for voice but is heard in the music played by the strings. The texture is like a musical mask that reveals Amneris as a dangerous lover.

“I was dreaming,” sings Rademès and thinks again of leading the army. Amneris asks if he has ever had a “sweeter and gentler dream.” The music becomes agitated as Rademès wonders if she knows of his secret love. His reaction instantly arouses her suspicion and a fiery duet is set in motion.

We hear the emblematic music that opens the preludio to signal the first appearance of Aida. “Come, my dear,” sings Amneris to Aida over march like rhythms in C major, “you are neither slave nor maid here, where I have called you sister.”

In Aida’s first phrase she expresses fear for her country, for herself and Amneris. Her vocal lines ascend and modulate from C to bright E major.

The agitated music resumes and a trio of asides is formed in which each character expresses a different point of view simultaneously. Amneris and Rademès alternate lines. She sings about betrayal, he wonders if his love for Aida has been exposed. Aida herself sings long notes that soar above the texture lamenting for her country and for a love that will cause destruction.

Scena; Ritorna vincitor!
Rademès has been named head of the army and leads them to war against Ethiopia. In this aria in five parts, Aida wonders if she should pray for the victory of her lover, which would mean destruction of her father and countrymen, or for the victory of her father, which would mean the destruction of her lover.

Section 1: Accompanied recitative where the music becomes increasingly chromatic. There is a sudden pause.
Section 2: “L’insana parola (insane talk)” is exotic and elusive with lines that rise in waves. The music becomes unstable and culminates on a high B-flat.
Section 3: “And my love?” The opening theme of the preludio returns as Aida meditates on her love for Rademès accompanied by a clarinet.
Section 4: “I sacri nomi di padre, d’amante (these sacred words father, and lover).” In A-flat minor Aida sings a lyrical passage about her confusion and of wanting to pray.
Section 5: “Numi, pietà (Have pity on my suffering, o gods!)” Aida asks the gods for mercy in a voice that remains quiet but increasingly resolved.

Act II
Introduction, scena coro.
In contrast to the way Aida contemplates Rademès, Amneris is the centerpiece of society and the women’s chorus and harps and trumpets are all focused on entertaining her.

“Fill me with rapture my love,” interjects Amneris twice, singing to a lover who is absent, who was never in love with her, and who has already committed his love for someone socially unattainable: her slave.

Scena e duetto (Aida and Amneris)
Aida’s theme indicates that she is near. Amneris wants to prove that Aida is in love with Rademès so she constructs a plan: “I am your friend,” she sings to Aida, “you shall have everything from me.” Aida answers in minor; she is concerned for her family. Amneris says that time and a powerful god will heal her.

A duet breaks forth, Aida singing the tune associated with her in a major key while Amneris sing lines that are punctuated and fragmentary to show her evil side that is starting to emerge. But first Amneris sings charming music as she cozies up to Aida to tell her that Rademès has been killed in battle. When Aida reacts, Amneris has the proof she has sought.

Amneris reveals her true face, she removes the musical mask she has worn and becomes strident and syncopated as she exposes the trap into which Aida has fallen. Aida responds with a heartbreaking melody in F minor “Pietà ti prenda (have pity for my sorrow!).” “Tremble, slave,” replies Amneris.

The chorus enters to the famous triumphal march and Amneris forces Aida to take part in the celebration. Aida recalls the last section of her aria from Act I: (Numi, pietà) and the scene fades away quietly.

This act opens with an evocation on moonlight on the banks of the Nile. The chorus chants prayers to Osiris, and Aida enters to the music of her signature theme. She imagines the Nile as a tomb and begins to seek both peace and oblivion in a heartbreaking falling line. The oboe entwines with her thoughts as she dreams again about a homeland that is forever lost to her (Oh, patria mia). In whisper quiet intensity Aida works her way to high C as this famous aria cadences.

Scene e duetto
Rademès and Aida are rejoined. The love that Rademès articulates sounds awash in the military, and Aida distances herself from him because she thinks he will marry Amneris.

Rademès sings in E minor to a military accompaniment that the Ethiopian people are ready for a new war, and he will surrender the Egyptian army—then they can have a life together. Aida responds in C minor. She fears the vengeance of Amneris. Her plan is to flee. Accompanied again by the solo oboe, she sings about leaving their old lives and finding a new paradise together.

Rademès can not imagine leaving his homeland, but Aida continues to persuade. Finally he agrees; and in an allegro assai vivo they decide to flee to the desert and make a heaven of love.

Act IV
Scene e duetto

Amneris contemplates what has happened between scenes: Rademès unknowingly gave information on the location of the Egyptian army to Aida’s father Amonsasto. When Amneris and the priests arrived Amonsasto and Aida escaped, but Rademès decided to stay and face his punishment.

In a reminiscence of her Act I entrance, Amneris confesses that she will always love Rademès. She calls the guards and asks that Rademès is brought before her.

In E-flat minor she sings an aria offering him pardon if he repents. He does not feel guilty, but wishes to die. But in a series of quick exchanges it is established that Aida is alive and that Rademès will live if he renounces her.

Amneris becomes angry and finally disconnects from Rademès singing “Chi ti salva, sciagurato, (Who will save you wretch!).” She shows her true face in C minor.

Rademès responds with a new thought: “È la morte un ben supremo” Death is the greatest good if I die for her). He and Amneris sing together for the first time in this scene and then a chromatic pulsing music brings this section to a quick close.

Judgment Scene
Amneris sings a solo aria: “Ohimè! morir mi sento! (Alas, who will save him?)”
The orchestra plays the music of the priests heard in the central section of the preludio from Act One. The orchestra seems independent of Amneris as the priests enter the underground prison to speak with Rademès.

The Priests intone a chant: “Spirto del nume, sovra noi discendi! (Divine spirit descend upon us)” Amneris once again asks who it is that will save him.

A half-step higher the priests read the charge against Rademès. Amneris reacts. A second charge is read to him. “He is innocent,” sings Amneris, “save him!”

With even more tension created by moving another half-step higher a third charge is read with reaction by Amneris. The verdict is chanted in unison by the chorus: Rademès will die a traitor’s death by being buried alive in a tomb. Amneris charges the priests: they are the ones who have committed a crime.

Scena e duetto finale ultimo
Rademès awakens in the tomb. He sings of his realization on a single pitch, but soon discovers that Aida has chosen to share his fate and join him in the tomb.

“I wished to die in your arms,” sings Aida in her famous aria “Presago il core della tua condanna (I sensed your fate and entered this tomb).” Aida soon sees the angel of death approaching. They overhear the priestesses singing. “Terra addio (Goodbye Earth)” they sing in a haunted tune of unexpected vocal leaps.

The opera ends with sounds of the outside world coming into the tomb and being overheard. Among the world of commerce, Amneris is outside the tomb praying for peace as the opera closes.


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