So, this past Saturday I saw (heard?) the Metropolitan Opera in its matinee transmission of “Aida” at my local movie theater, and I gotta tell you, this was a two-popcorn bag event! In a word, it was superb. I got down on my knees (a dubious prospect in this particular somewhat ratty theater) and thanked all the gods of ancient Egypt: Ptah, Osiris, Isis and all their friends, that the Met was able to raise the millions of dollars needed to stage a truly triumphal Aida for their reeeelly big opening show of the Live in HD season!
See, the Met could have gone all “arty” in this production. They could have staged a minimalist Aida, with no scenery except for a long purple bench and a giant clock. Or, they could have set this story in the Egypt of the 1920’s, with Amneris as a flapper-girl. Or, they could have gone really radical and staged it as a freak show on Coney Island. (You think I am jesting, but, sadly, no.)
Instead of being artsy: The Powers That Be (with financial support from the Neubauer Foundation and Rolex watches!) set Aida the way it is meant to be set. Recall that Verdi wrote this masterpiece under commission (in 1871) from the Cairo Egypt Opera House! And it was meant to show off the glories of ancient Egypt. With monumental scenery, temples, hieroglyphs, the works! The Met had everything: the best stars available, every supernumerary out there on the stage for the Triumphal March, even a couple of real horses for the Grand Procession scene. The two stately and well-costumed equine stars led the Procession, and then circled back around the stage (after the ballet number) to pull the victory chariot of the dashing General Radames — bravissimi to all!
O Patria Mia!
The concept of Patriotism is a big theme in this opera. As it is in many Italian operas of the 19th century. It had taken Italy many decades to establish itself within appropriate borders as a sovereign European nationality and state. During those years, Patriotism was a new concept that had to be taught and inculcated. Italian opera audiences had been conditioned to break out into fervent applause whenever a performer started singing about “La Patria”.
As a very wise man, Verdi knew, however, that Patriotism can cut two ways. Or, as my mom says, there are two sides to every story. In this case, the two sides are Egypt vs Ethiopia. As the opera opens, the two nations are at war with each other.
Each side blames the other: The Egyptians say that the Ethiopians are raiding their lands, burning their villages, and killing their people. The Ethiopians say exactly the same thing about the other side. But the two sides are not equal. Egypt is a regional superpower. In modern terms, Egypt is like, say, Russia. And Ethiopia — hmm, more like Gruzia. And the surrogates for the two sides are the two rival princesses: Princess Amneris of Egypt (portrayed by a Gruzian diva) vs Princess Aida of Ethiopia (portrayed by a Russian diva) — O the Exquisite Irony!
Gloria All’ Egitto!
Before properly praising these divas, I have to get some ethnic and racial stuff out of the way. Not because it’s troublesome, but because it’s funny. See, in his previous triumph as General Otello (which I reviewed here), the Powers That Be made a strategic decision to not put Aleksandrs Antoņenko in blackface. Here, on the other hand, as General Radames, the heroic tenor was given a light spray-tan, as was also Anna Netrebko, along with most of the supernumeraries. I had wondered previously what they would do with Anna. See, Leontyne Price had sort of set the standard (in our era) of what an Aida was supposed to look and sound like. Aida is an Ethiopian Princess, after all. And Anna is … well, she is a pale-faced Russian woman. Not a problem! They sprayed on a light Donald Trump and put a corn-row wig on her pretty head. And she looked awesome! But more about her later…
So, apparently, both Egypt and its enemy Ethiopia are multi-racial societies, with all possible skin tones from light tan to Nubian black. (Which I can actually buy as historically factual — well, what do I know? I am not an ethnologist.) In this production, most of the Egyptians, especially the archers, have tan-colored skin and short nappy hair. There are a few exceptions: in the Triumphal March were to be seen some very black-skinned Egyptian soldiers — obviously from sub-Saharan Africa; not to mention a couple of stand-out white-skinned ringers were spotted, who could have been Russian soldiers providing logistical aid to Egypt against the Ethiopian threat! Also, the Pharaoh himself, Ryan Speedo Green, whom we saw previously as the High Priest in Semiramide which I reviewed here — is very dark, probably of Nubian descent, and needed no artificial pigmentation! Pharaoh Speedo, who had very few lines to sing, but sang them well, and looked magnificent in his big cap, has a daughter, Amneris, who is significantly more light-skinned than himself. Her mom was probably a Philistine — that’s an inside-joke, by the way — just getting you prepped for my review of Samson and Delilah in a couple of weeks… As a native Gruzian, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili probably felt that she needed no phony tan — Most Gruzians are naturally darker than, say, Latvians — but all the same she looked quite pale alongside the recently salon’ed Netrebko.
On the Ethiopian side of the fence, the people are not uniformly black or tan either: there were also a few ringers in the “Bring out the prisoners!” scene. Including a very white family who looked like they could have been a Methodist church tour group from the Midwest who somehow got wrapped up in this awful conflict.
But all goes to show that race was not an issue back in those days: One’s national allegiance was a function of one “patria”, the soil upon which one was born and raised. As Aida teaches us so eloquently, in her “O patria mia!” aria.
Which brings us to the issue of Radames, and whether or not he is actually a traitor to his Egyptian patria. When Amneris overhears Radames plotting to flee with Aida, and she rushes out and calls him a “Traditore!” she isn’t really saying that he betrayed his country; she is saying that he betrayed her! Radames was supposed to love her, and instead he fell in love with (whom she thinks is) this low-life slave-girl Aida. The High Priests take a different slant on this matter, however, They charge Radames with three counts of literal treason and sentence him to death. His punishment is to be buried alive in a tomb beneath their main altar.
When we first meet Radames, he is bursting right out of the box (“Celeste Aida!”) with his declaration of love for Aida. He is a completely romantic lover, Italian-style: Even his thirst for military glory is tied to his desire to win her, and he is too blinded to see any contradiction in his two main activities: Killing Ethiopians, and winning the love of an Ethiopian girl.
I am forced to confess, that Radames is my favorite character in this opera. It still gives me a chill when the priests intone his name (twice, then rinse and repeat 3 times). They accuse him of committing 3 counts of treason; and each time Radames is silent and does not even speak up in his own defense! Radames is meant to be the perfect hero: brave, stalwart, and constant in his love. It is not really his fault that circumstances placed him into this royal pickle. In a backstage interview during one of the intermissions, Antoņenko (“You can call me Sasha”) explained why Radames is so great: He is both a lover and a romantic, a poet, but also a warrior. In Sasha’s words, Radames represents the ideal of the ancient Greek man, and yet an Egyptian! Sasha, who is adorable by the way and looked quite fetching and even exotic in his Egyptian eye make-up — was also asked by the host (Isabel Leonard) a very pertinent question that everyone has wondered: How can such a small nation as Latvia produce so many great opera stars? Sasha speculated that it might be due to Latvians love of singing: All Latvians, pretty much, sing in some kind of choir at their local church or school. [I would also humbly submit that the Soviet legacy of excellent musical training might have played a role as well, just sayin’…]
Anyhow, the Aida story-line, unlike that of most grand operas, is actually a fairly simple one. I don’t need a 7-part series (as I did with Semiramide) to try to explain the plot. And the whole story can all be told from the POV of Radames himself, so here goes:
Radames is a General in Pharaoh Speedo’s Egyptian army. Rad’s ambition is to win Aida as his wife. Aida is (he thinks) a simple Ethiopian girl taken captive by the Egyptian army and put into service in the royal palace, as chambermaid to Princess Amneris. Rad is all too aware that Amneris loves him (=Rad), she practically throws herself at him, and this could present a danger. He and Aida must keep their mutual love a secret, especially from Amneris. His big plan is to lead Pharaoh’s army against the Ethiopians, win a significant victory, get a promotion and then, from this position of more power, he might have the leverage he needs to get Aida.
Important plot point: Neither Rad, nor Amneris (nor anybody else in Egypt) knows that Aida is no simple slave girl. She is a Princess herself, although not on the grand scale of Amneris, nor a Disney Princess, but still a Princess nonetheless: She is the daughter of the Ethiopian King Amonasro. If the Egyptians were to learn that fact, then Aida’s situation could get nasty, they would probably use her as a hostage. For the time being, she keeps her head down and pretends to be just an ordinary servant girl. Even her true love Radames — she has not told him the truth.
There is one time when she almost lets it slip: Amneris is being particularly bitchy to her in the chamber, and Aida almost lets her pride get away with her: “I’m like you, I am also…” then catches herself just in time before finishing her sentence with “a princess”, and remembers to appropriately grovel on the floor.
Why is Amneris even being so being bitchy to Aida? As Rachvelishvili explained in a backstage interview, Amneris is not an evil witch, nor a sociopath: She is just a spoiled-rotten bratty Semitic Princess. She even attempts to make friends with her servant girl. But what really gets her grits boiling is her suspicion (which turns out to be correct) that Radames (with whom she is obsessively in love) is secretly having an affair with Aida.
We don’t know the backstory, we didn’t see how Radames and Aida first met, or how they fell in love, or when they started having secret trysts in the grotto outside the temple. When the curtain opens for Act I, it’s already a done deal. Amneris suspects the truth… and she just can’t let it go. She could have any man in the kingdom, but the only one she wants, is the only one who will not have her!
What Should Have Happened?
In retrospect, we can see exactly where and when General Radames made his fatal error, and when things started to go terribly wrong for him and Aida. In the Triumphant March, the General returns victorious (recall: this was his Plan A) from his ass-whipping of the Ethiopians, unknowingly dragging Aida’s dad back with him as his trophy prisoner. Recall that Ethiopia is a chihuahua compared to Big Gorilla Egypt. The Pharaoh does not march onto the battlefield himself: he sends his General. But the Ethiopian f**king King is right out there on the front lines with his troops! And he gets captured as a POW. And then resorts to the age-old gambit of putting on a regular soldier’s tunic and blending in with the crowd.
To the victorious Radames, Pharaoh Speedo offers to grant his any wish. In retrospect, Radames should have piped up immediately with: “I wish to marry your daughter’s chambermaid, Aida. Or, if that is not possible, at least grant her a transfer into my household.” And the Pharaoh would have been forced to comply. Instead, under Aida’s prompting, Radames wastes his wish on “Let these prisoners of war return to their homeland.” How selfish of him not to put Aida’s welfare first! Boo! The Pharaoh reluctantly grants his wish and then additionally “rewards” Radames with his own (Speedo’s) daughter’s hand in marriage. O joy! Speedo has probably been plotting for years how to rid himself of this whiny offspring. Radames is secretly horrified but cannot object in public, since he already wasted his real wish. And this is what dooms him, because the only way he can escape from Amneris now, is to literally defect to Ethiopia!
Radames has one last chance after that, to fix his own mistake. In one last secret tryst with Aida, he comes up with an overly-complicated but still logical Plan B: Not chastened by their recent ass-whipping, the Ethiopians are at it again, and hungry for a re-match. Radames will lead the Egyptian troops once again, give the Ethiopians a second whupping, return home victorious (again), be granted a second wish, and this time he will explain to Pharaoh Speedo the true situation between himself and Aida. Speedo will then annul his engagement to Amneris and allow him to marry Aida.
And if that doesn’t work, then Plan C is for both of them to flee into the desert. Somehow Radames still cannot envision himself actually defecting to Ethiopia.
Important Ontological Note: When he comes up with his hare-brained schemes, Radames still doesn’t know that Aida is the daughter of the Ethiopian King. Which he is about to learn, a few seconds later, when Papa Amonasro comes bursting out of the nearby bushes, grabs his daughter, and flees; while a stunned Radames covers their flight, and then hands himself in to the priests. And that’s the end of him, he is a dead man now.
Anything You Can Sing, I Can Sing Louder!
In the tragic final act, the two divas, Netrebko and Rachvelishvili totally batted it out of the park. Or, as other reviewers have said, literally “brought the house down” — People clapped so hard that their hands fell off.
It would seem on the surface that Aida has more to complain of in her final swan-song: With her father and brothers dead (in battle), and hearing news of her boyfriend’s fate, she chose to return to Memphis (that’s the city in Egypt where they lived) and hide herself in the tomb, so that she could die with Radames. Ex-General Radames had hoped to hear that his girl survived, and is quite surprised to find her lurking in the tomb. How she slipped in there without the priests seeing her … is not explained. And which, by the way, will cut in half his remaining time on this Earth, since Aida will now be using up almost half of the available oxygen!
And yet, ironically, Princess Amneris, even though she lives on, has an even more grisly fate: The only man she ever loved, or could ever love, has just told her, in no uncertain terms, when given his final choice, that he would rather be buried alive than marry her!
For those who would have liked to see an offstage rivalry between the Russian and the Gruzian divas: No. The two beautiful ladies appear to be friends, or at least friendly, offstage, as we saw in their backstage interview after Act I. And when the final curtain fell, the backstage camera showed them exiting the stage arm in arm and chattering away — probably in Russian. As General Manager Peter Gelb hinted at the very beginning of the show: “Opera is the place where ugly politics should be put aside, and all people come together to celebrate the Glory of Civilization.” By which he means, of course, Italian Grand Opera!