ACT I. A short fugued introduction played pianissimo precedes the rising of the curtain and produces a feeling of vague mystery which will frequently be experienced throughout the work. This scholastic form is continued as the curtain rises upon a Hall in the royal palace, Memphis.
Ramfis, the High Priest (bass), is significantly telling Radamès, a young Egyptian warrior (tenor), that the oracle has been consulted and Isis has declared that a young commander shall lead the troops against the Ethiopians, who have now reached Thebes. Left alone, Radamès sings his graceful romanza, Celeste “Aida, in which the dreams of love and glory are mingled in melancholy beauty. Radamès pictures Aida crowned by the valour of his arm, and ends his song in a tender pianissimo. The staccato chords of the accompaniment, in which the clarinet is conspicuous, have a peculiar effect.
Amneris, Pharaoh’s daughter (mezzo-soprano), enters to question Radamès about the coming war. In “asides ” he hopes she has not discovered his love for Aïda, and she hopes his heart is free. This duet, Quale insolita gioia, leads into a trio on the entrance of Aida, an Ethiopian slave (soprano). Amneris watches the greeting of Radamès and Aida, and her suspicions are aroused, although Aida says her tears are for her native land. In the trio, Vieni, o diletta, Amneris dissembles and appears friendly to Aida ; Aïda is sorrowful ; and Radamès, suspicious.
The King (bass) and his court enter. A Messenger appears announcing that the Ethiopians have advanced and are led by Amonasro. ” My father ! ” Aida exclaims” aside.” The King sings Su ! del Nilo al sacra lido, and the chorus takes up the theme of this Egyptian hymn. To Aïda’s grief, Radamés is appointed general ; Amneris presents him with a banner; and the King encourages the soldiers. All leave in great excitement over the approaching war.
Aida, alone, gives full vent to her anguish, Ritorna vincitor! This war must be fatal to father or lover, and her heart is torn with divided love and anxiety. Suppose they should meet in battle ! Then in despair she calls upon her gods, ” I sacri nomi di padre,” and goes out.
The scene changes to the Temple of Ptah, where an elaborate service is taking place. The Grand Priestess (soprano) sings a hymn to Ptah,’ with harp accompaniment, and is answered by a chorus of priestesses, Possente Ftha. Ramfis and his priests invoke the God, and answer the strange wail of the women with their heavy chant.
During the dance of the priestesses (ballet) Radamès enters and is consecrated by Ramfis, and a veil is placed upon him, while the fantastic hymn and clouds of incense ascend to mighty Ptah. Here Ramfis sings Nume custode, in which the priests join, and the curtain falls on the chant to mighty Ptah.
ACT II. Preceded by strange, deep chords on the harp which throb in melancholy and beautiful monotony, the curtain rises upon the apartments of Amneris. She is being attired for the great festival of welcome to Radamès, who is returning victorious from the war. Her women sing to her, Chi mai, but now and then she breaks through their chorus_ with an ” aside,” a beautiful phrase, Ah! vieni, amor mio, m’ inebbria. Proud Princess that she is, she cannot restrain her joy at the thought of Radamès’s return. Is he not to be her lover ? The slaves bring jewels and perfumes, and hold the polished mirror before her; and, exulting in her beauty and full of anticipation, she joins in their chorus. Then for her diversion black boys enter to execute a Moorish Dance, a peculiar melody in which there is a passage of consecutive thirds and sixths on the pedal-point, G.
At the approach of Aida, who brings in the crown, Amneris dismisses her slaves. She fears a rival in Aida, but pretends to have respect for her grief as the daughter of the conquered. As Aida enters, we hear the opening motiv from the prelude, a happy thought, for this is a climax of the drama. This fine duo between the daughter of the King of Ethiopia and the daughter of the King of Egypt begins with melodic phrases, parlante. Amneris counterfeits affection and sympathy, and, with a most caressing phrase, succeeds in deceiving the unhappy captive. She makes Aida betray her secret love for Radamês by falsely announcing his death in battle, and after Aida has allowed her grief to be seen, Amneris triumphs over her with cruelty and insolence : She loves Radamës herself ! At this moment, from within, the voices of warriors are heard demanding the death of the King of Ethiopia. With a phrase full of pride and hatred, Amneris haughtily leaves Aida to her anguish, taking no notice of her entreaty for pity. Aida turns to her gods. She cries, Ah ! pieta ! Che più me resta ? Her sorrowful notes ” Numi pieta ! ” are heard as she walks slowly away, and her voice echoes behind the scenes, an effect Verdi used in Gilda’s exit in Act I of Rigoletto.
The scene changes to the entrance of Thebes,an avenue of Sphinxes bathed in the dazzling light of a tropical sun. A temple to Ammon, right ; a throne, left. This is one of the most brilliant and gorgeous finales ever written. Verdi has used the brightest colours of the musical palette for orchestra and chorus ; he has been compared to Veronese in brilliancy.
First Pharaoh and his court enter, then Amneris, Aida, and slaves ; then Ramfis and the Priests ; and then Egyptians. (Chorus, Gloria all’ Egitto.) To the strains of the pompous March, the troops pass by. Their military band plays upon long, straight Egyptian trumpets (specially made for Aïda by Adolphe Sax), and later during the procession a second band of these trumpets affords opportunity for a startling modulation from A-flat to B. Dancing-girls follow with the spoils, and trophies are brought in.
The stage presents a brilliant spectacle when filled, and a fever of excitement runs through the choral and orchestral masses. It seems as if a nation was assembled to witness the results of its prowess, and the cry that bursts forth, Vieni, o guerriero vindice, appears to be spontaneous ; it is not only broad and noble, but it is patriotic. People and priests alike mingle their voices. Radamès is borne in triumph before the King, who salutes him. Amneris places the crown of victory upon his head. The majestic Pharaoh will grant any boon that the conqueror may ask. First, Radamès will have the prisoners brought in. Among them Aida recognizes her father, Amonasro (baritone). He quickly bids her not to disclose his rank, and informs the King that he is merely an officer who has fought for his country. His principal phrase in this great ensemble, ” Ma tu, Re, tu Signore, possente,” expressing his secret thoughts and his hope to conquer his liberty and kingdom, is a motiv subject to beautiful developments. He pleads for the lives of the prisoners, in which they all join. The Priests demand their death, but the people pray for clemency for the vanquished. Radamès asks their life as his boon, and obtains it, nothwithstanding the opposition of Ramfis, who, however, induces the King to detain Amonasro and Aida as hostages. Now what can Pharaoh find as a more brilliant reward for the valiant hero than the hand of Amneris ? To the delight of the latter, Radamès is made heir to the throne of Egypt, and she is bestowed upon him. Radamès and Aida are grieved and dismayed ; and while all sing their triumphal chorus, Amonasro promises Aida vengeance.
ACT III. The introduction to the third Act is of a strange and fascinating monotony. How can an Andante movement in G-major express a moonlit scene on the banks of the Nile ? If we say that the effect is produced by the peculiar arrangement of the muted strings, with the first violin playing remarkable arpeggios, the second violin tremolo, the viola pizzicato, and the ‘cello and double bass harmonics, while the flute has the melody, will this explain how Verdi has given the effect of the mystery of an Oriental night ? During the last bars of this short prelude the curtain rises upon the banks of the Nile, one of the most poetic sites of the island of Philæ. A temple to Isis is hidden among palm-trees, to the left, from whence comes the wierd chant of female voices, singing hymns to the goddess, O tu che sei d’ Osiri. The green river flows sleepily in the silvery moonlight, as the orchestra has already told us. What a beautiful contrast this poetic night affords to the dazzling day of the last Act ! A boat slips down the river and stops. Ramfis and Amneris, closely veiled, and followed by her veiled women and her guards, land. Ramfis exhorts Amneris, and enters the Temple with her. Amneris will keep vigil to Isis, on this eve of her marriage. The sound of flutes and oboes upon the silence of this dreamful night increase the sentiment of solitude and peace. Aïda enters, veiled. Radamès has asked her to meet him here; if to bid her farewell, she will drown herself in the Nile ! While, waiting, she sings her melancholy prayer, O cieli azzurri, o dolci aure native, accompanied with great delicacy. It is followed by her romanza, O patria mia, a song of longing for her native land, each strophe of which is separated by a pastoral ritornello, of extreme grace and freshness.
Turning, she sees her father, and one of the most beautiful duets in the whole operatic répertoire occurs. The music is full of warmth and varied emotion, most easily expressed in music by the composer. Amonasro knows Aida’s love for Radamès, and by means of it perhaps their race and country may be delivered. Can she not draw the secret of the path the Egyptians will take to quell the new uprising ? The Ethiopians will then be able to surprise the foe ! Aida is in despair : to restore her father’s crown, to see her be-loved country again, to break the bonds of serfdom, what happiness ! But then ! to deceive treacherously Radamës and to yield him to Amneris ? No, Aida, cannot agree to this command. Amonasro sings with fire and sentiment, to a thoroughly Italian phrase, Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate, painting alternately a picture of their odorous forests, fresh valleys, and golden temples ; then he describes the carnage of battle and the murder of his family ; and finally, he invokes the shade of her mother, to effective rhythms and harmonies. A tremendous crescendo accompanies his male diction. Aida falls at his feet and the fury of the music stops suddenly for her plaintive murmur, O patria! quanta mi costi ! a sudden and effective pianissimo.
Amonasro, seeing Radamès in the distance, hides.
Radamès enters, and passionately expresses his love in the famous duet, Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida, a phrase, full of love and tenderness, which will be repeated at the ensemble closing this number. It is accompanied by two cornets-à-piston.
Aida begs him to fly with her to her native land, Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti. He yields to her caressing song, La . . tra foreste vergini, and a passionate ensemble follows.
As they hasten away, Aida pauses to ask what path the Egyptians will take. Thoughtlessly he replies : ” The gorges of Nápata.” Amonasro now reveals himself. Radamès is greatly agitated that he has been overheard, and astonished beyond measure that Aida is the daughter of the King of Ethiopia. In the following trio Radamès is distressed that he has betrayed his country ; Aida begs him to calm himself; and Amonasro promises that Radamès shall be honoured in Ethiopia and have Aida. Just as Amnasro is pulling him away, Amneris and Ramfis come from the Temple. Pharaoh’s daughter denounces the traitor. Amonasro rushes forward to kill her, but Radamès protects her and begs Aida and Amonasro to flee. Amonasro drags Aïda away, and Ramfis charges the guards to follow. Radamès yields himself up to Ramfis.
ACT IV. A Hall in the King’s Palace. A portal on the left, leads to a subterranean Hall of Justice; a passage on the right to the prison where Radamès is confined.
Amneris stands near the portal in a mournful attitude. Although she remembers that Radamès was about to fly with Aïda, and that she delivered him to justice, she now wishes to save him. The melody heard during her first duet with Radamès in Act I is repeated. She bids the soldiers bring Radamès before her.
Radamès enters proudly. She reminds him that the judges are waiting for him in the Hall of Justice and that she can obtain pardon from Pharaoh. Radamès must know that Aida still lives, although Amonasro has perished. The price of her intercession is his renunciation of Aïda. Radamès refuses. In this duet, Già i sacerdoti, the bass clarinet lends its doleful, penetrating voice. Amneris cries for vengeance and Radamès scorns her. As Radamès leaves her for-ever, Amneris falls. She has sealed his sentence. The priests cross the hall and descend to the Hall of Justice.
Amneris covers her face ; she cannot look upon those to whom she has delivered Radamès. Ramfis and the priests are heard below praying to the gods. Amneris cries out in anguish. Radamès enters with the guards and descends. Soon from the crypt is heard the voice of Ramfis addressing Radamès. The despairing Amneris, with broken sobs, Calls down for pity. Finally, Ramfis is heard pronouncing the doom. ” Radamès, Radamès, discolpati ! Egli tace,” thrice repeated, each time a half-tone higher, has great effect. Radamès, the traitor, shall find a living sepulchre The priests return, and Amneris upbraids them in fury. ” Radamès was a traitor and deserved death,” they answer, and pass out. Amneris utters maledictions upon them and leaves.
The scene changes. Again we see the Temple of Ptah, resplendent with light and ceremonies. Incense wreathes beneath the implacable and indifferent Ptah, the priests and priestesses sing their strange, harmonious chant, Immenso Fthà, noi t’invochiam, and the dancing-girls reverence the deity with steps and postures. Below is a dark crypt and in its shadows Radamès is seen. The stone is closing in upon him; he bemoans Aida. Aida steals to his side; she heard his doom and crept in, unseen, to perish with him. Their plaintive farewell to life and love, O terra addio, which they repeat alternately to the accompaniment of a poignant tremolo in the orchestra, is a rapturous duet entirely Italian in character. Life cannot last long under such conditions, therefore Verdi has made this scene very short. The monotonous and beautiful hymn continues above the lovers ; and now a figure enters, wrapped in a mourning veil; it is Amneris; she has come to wail above the sepulchre of Radamès. The love-song grows a little fainter, and the curtain slowly falls as the dying Aïda sinks in the arms of Radamès.
” The work,” to quote Camille Bellaigue, ” finishes in serenity and peace, and such terminations are the most beautiful. Above, the temple, full of light, where the ceremonies continue immutable in the sanctuary of the indifferent gods ; below, two human beings dying in each other’s arms. Their song of love and death is among the most beautiful of all music. Who knows ? Perhaps some day will see the decay of fugue, counterpoint, and the scientific combinations of harmony ; the musical world may be destroyed : but beneath its ruins, it seems to me that certain melodies will soar: the I/oi che sapete, of Mozart, the final sextuor of Der Freïschutz, and a few others. The last melody of Aida will be one of these.”