Monday, June 5, 2023

Douglas Messerli "Buried Alive" (on Antonio Ghislanzoni's and Giuseppe Verdi's Aida)

buried alive

by Douglas Messerli

Antonio Ghislanzoni (libretto, based on a French scenario by Auguste Mariette) Giuseppe Verdi (composer), Sonja Frisell-Gianni Quaranta (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Aida / 2009 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]

One of the aspects of Aida that interviewer, singer Renée Fleming suggested several times in the intermissions of Verdi's great opera was that, despite the huge size of the cast, except for the scenes in court and the triumphal march of Act 2, Scene 2, the opera is an intimate work, centered around a love triangle of the characters Aida (Violeta Urmana), Radamès (Johan Botha), and Amneris (Dolora Zajick).

     What particularly struck me this time through the opera was not only how truly intimate most of the work was, but how psychologically isolated each of these figures are from one another, despite the fact that their every action has enormous effect on the others. In few other operas do the major characters sing so many arias consisting of what we might describe as internal dialogue. In Se quel guerrier io fossi!...Celeste Aida, Radamès sings of his love and the beauty of Aida to himself, terrified that Amneris might get wind of it. Amneris sings of her need to discover the name of Aida's lover, and later describes her plots to expose her slave.  Aida, who secretly is the Princess of Ethiopia, sings of numerous things she cannot share with others, her love of her country, the identity of her lover, her father, and herself. Radamès' desire to lead the Egyptian military into victory can also only be expressed in private thoughts. Like Eugene O'Neill's 20th century drama Strange Interlude most of the characters of this 19th century opera spend a great deal of time in soliloquy. Without these private interludes, in fact, there would be no story left to tell. For the public events of the opera, Radamès' victory over the Ethiopians, his plea that the captives be saved, and his reward of marriage to Amneris, are the forces that doom them all, and speed two of them to their death by being entombed alive.

     It is apparent from what I have just suggested, accordingly, that all three characters have lived buried lives long before the final scene, from the very outset of the work. Radamès must hide his love and his ambition both as he tries to balance opposing forces, for his desire to be made general will mean destroying Aida's kin and perhaps even losing Aida's love. Rebuffed by Radamès in love, Amneris hides her sorrow while, at the same time, pretending deep friendship with Aida as she attempts to expose what she senses is a growing love between her and the general. Aida must hold nearly everything inside: her love of Radamès, her hatred of Amneris, the name of her father, even her own identity. Although all sing of their deep love for one another, because of buried secrets, those loves are transformed into destruction, betrayal, and, ultimately, death.
     The numerous choruses of the Egyptian priests calling for war, vengeance, and punishment, although seemingly set apart from the deep loves of this trio, are psychologically played out by the three major figures of the opera. Each of these figures, in short, sweeps up the others into a kind of vortex that draws them into the void. 
     By the final "real" entombment, strangely enough, Aida and Radamès are released. For the first time, hidden from all other eyes, they can openly show their love and, accordingly, are freed from the sorrows of their previously hidden lives. Amneris remains entrapped in life while feeling only death.   

Los Angeles, November 19, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (November 2009).

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