Two erroneous impressions concerning Verdi’s “Aida” may as well as not be corrected at the be-ginning of a study of that opera : it was not written to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal, nor to open the Italian Opera-house at Cairo, though the completion of the canal and the inauguration of the theatre were practically contemporaneous with the conception of the plan which gave the world one of Verdi’s finest and also most popular operas. It is more difficult to recall a season in any of the great lyric theatres of the world within the last thirty-five years in which “Aida” was not given than to enumerate a score of productions with particularly fine singers and imposing mise en scène. With it Verdi ought to have won a large measure of gratitude from singers and impresarios as well as the fortune which it brought him ; for though, like all really fine works, it rewards effort and money bestowed upon it with corresponding and proportionate generosity, it does not depend for its effectiveness on extraordinary vocal outfit or scenic apparel. Fairly well sung and acted and respectably dressed, it always wins the sympathies and warms the enthusiasm of an audience the world over. It is seldom thought of as a conventional opera, and yet it is full of conventionalities which do not obtrude themselves simply because there is so much that is individual about its music and its pictures particularly its pictures. Save for the features of its score which differentiate it from the music of Verdi’s other operas and the works of his predecessors and contemporaries, “Aida” is a companion of all the operas for which Meyerbeer set a model when he wrote his works for the Académie Nationale in Paris the great pageant operas like “Le Prophète,” “Lohengrin,” and Goldmark’s “Queen of Sheba.” With the last it shares one element which brings it into relationship also with a number of much younger and less significant works operas like Mascagni’s “Iris,” Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” and Giordano’s “Siberia.” In the score of “Aida” there is a slight infusion of that local color which is lavishly employed in decorating its externals. The pomp and pageantry of the drama are Egyptian and ancient; the play’s natural and artificial environment is Egyptian and ancient; two bits of its music are Oriental, possibly Egyptian, and not impossibly ancient. But in everything else “Aida” is an Italian opera. The story plays in ancient Egypt, and its inventor was an archaeologist deeply versed in Egyptian antiquities, but I have yet to hear that Mariette Bey, who wrote the scenario of the drama, ever claimed an historical foundation for it or pre-tended that anything in its story was characteristically Egyptian. Circumstances wholly fortuitous give a strong tinge of antiquity and nationalism to the last scene; but, if the ancient Egyptians were more addicted than any other people to burying malefactors alive, the fact is not of record; and the picture as we have it in the opera was not conceived by Mariette Bey, but by Verdi while working hand in hand with the original author of the libretto, which, though designed for an Italian performance, was first written in French prose.
The Italian Theatre in Cairo was built by the khedive, Ismail Pacha, and opened in November, 1869. It is extremely likely that the thought of the advantage which would accrue to the house, could it be opened with a new piece by the greatest of living Italian opera composers, had entered the mind of the khedive or his advisers ; but it does not seem to have occurred to them in time to insure such a work for the opening. Nevertheless, long before the inauguration of the theatre a letter was sent to Verdi asking him if he would write an opera on an Egyptian subject, and if so, on what terms. The opportunity was a rare one, and appealed to the composer, who had written “Les Vêpres Siciliennes” and “Don Carlos” for Paris, “La Forza del Destino” for St. Petersburg, and had not honored an Italian stage with a new work for ten years. But the suggestion that he state his terms embarrassed him. So he wrote to his friend Muzio and asked him what to do. Muzio had acquired much more worldly wisdom than ever came to the share of the great genius, and he replied sententiously : “Demand 4000 pounds sterling for your score. If they ask you to go and mount the piece and direct the rehearsals, fix the sum at 6000 pounds.”
Verdi followed his friend’s advice, and the khedive accepted the terms. At first the opera people in Cairo thought they wanted only the score which carried with it the right of performance, but soon they concluded that they wanted also the presence of the composer, and made him, in vain, munificent offers of money, distinctions, and titles. His real reason for not going to prepare the opera and direct the first performance was a dread of the voyage. To a friend he wrote that he feared that if he went to Cairo they would make a mummy of him. Under the terms of the agreement the khedive sent him 50,000 francs at once, and deposited the balance of 50,000 francs in a bank, to be paid over to the composer on delivery of the score.
The story of “Aida” came from Mariette Bey, who was then director of the Egyptian Museum at Boulak. Auguste Edouard Mariette was a French-man who, while an attaché of the Louvre, in 1850, had gone on a scientific expedition to Egypt for the French government and had discovered the temple of Serapis at Memphis. It was an ” enormous structure of granite and alabaster, containing within its enclosure the sarcophagi of the bulls of Apis, from the nineteenth dynasty to the time of the Roman supremacy.” After his return to Paris, he was appointed in 1855 assistant conservator of the Egyptian Museum in the Louvre, and after some further years of service, he went to Egypt again, where he received the title of Bey and an appointment as director of the museum at Boulak. Bayard Taylor visited him in 1851 and 1874, and wrote an account of his explorations and the marvellous collection of antiquities which he had in his care.
Mariette wrote the plot of “Aida,” which was sent to Verdi, and at once excited his liveliest interest. Camille du Locle, who had had a hand in making the books of “Les Vêpres Siciliennes” and “Don Carlos” (and who is also the librettist of Reyer’s “Salammbô”), went to Verdi’s home in Italy, and under the eye of the composer wrote out the drama in French prose. It was he who gave the world the information that the idea of the double scene in the last act was conceived by Verdi, who, he says, “took a large share in the work.” The drama, thus completed, was translated into Italian verse by Antonio Ghislanzoni, who, at the time, was editor of the Gazetta Musicale, a journal published in Milan. In his early life Ghislanzoni was a barytone singer. He was a devoted friend and admirer of Verdi’s, to whom he paid a glowing tribute in his book entitled “Reminiscenze Artistiche.” He died some fifteen or sixteen years ago, and some of his last verses were translations of Tennyson’s poems.
The khedive expected to hear his opera by the end of 1870, but there came an extraordinary disturbance of the plan, the cause being nothing less than the war between France and Germany. The scenery and costumes, which had been made after designs by French artists, were shut up in Paria At length, on December 24, 1871, the opera had its first performance at Cairo. Considering the sensation which the work created, it seems strange that it remained the exclusive possession of Cairo and a few Italian cities so long as it did, but a personal equation stood in the way of a performance at the Grand Opéra, where it properly belonged. The conduct of the conductor and musicians at the production of “Les Vêpres Siciliennes” had angered Verdi; and when M. Halanzier, the director of the Académie Nationale, asked for the opera in 1873, his request was refused. Thus it happened that the Théâtre Italien secured the right of first performance in Paris. It was brought out there on April 22, 1876, and had sixty-eight representations within three years. The original King in the French performance was Edouard de Reszke. It was not until March 22, 1880, that “Aida” reached the Grand Opéra. M. Vaucorbeil, the successor of Halanzier, visited Verdi at his home and succeeded in persuading him not only to give the performing rights to the national institution, but also to assist in its production. Maurel was the Amonasro of the occasion. The composer was greatly fêted, and at a dinner given in his honor by President Grévy was made a Grand Officer of the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
The opening scene of the opera is laid at Memphis, a fact which justifies the utmost grandeur in the stage furniture, and is explained by Mariette’s interest in that place. It was he who helped moderns to realize the ancient magnificence of the city de-scribed by Diodorus. It was the first capital of the united kingdom of upper and lower Egypt, the chief seat of religion and learning, the site of the temples of Ptah, Isis, Serapis, Phra, and the sacred bull Apis. Mariette here, on his first visit to Egypt, unearthed an entire avenue of sphinxes leading to the Serapeum, over four thousand statues, reliefs, and inscriptions, eight gigantic sculptures, and many other evidences of a supremely great city. He chose his scenes with a view to an exhibition of the ancient grandeur. In a hall of the Royal Palace, flanked by a colonnade with statues and flowering shrubs, and commanding a view of the city’s palaces and temples and the pyramids, Radames, an Egyptian soldier, and Ramfis, a high priest, discuss a report that the Ethiopians are in revolt in the valley of the Nile, and that Thebes is threatened. The high priest has consulted Isis, and the goddess has designated who shall be the leader of Egypt’s army against the rebels. An inspiring thought comes into the mind of Radames. What if he should be the leader singled out to crush the rebellion, and be received in triumph on his return? A consummation devoutly to be wished, not for his own glory alone, but for the sake of his love, Aida, whose beauty he sings in a romance (“Celeste Aida”) of exquisite loveliness and exaltation. Amneris, the daughter of the King of Egypt (Mariette gives him no name, and so avoids possible historical complications), enters. She is in love with Radames, and eager to know what it is that has so illumined his visage with joy. He tells her of his ambition, but hesitates when she asks him if no gentler dream had tenanted his heart. Aida approaches, and the perturbation of her lover is observed by Amneris, who affects love for her slave (for such Aïda is), welcomes her as a sister, and bids her tell the cause of her grief. Aïda is the daughter of Ethiopia’s king; but she would have the princess believe that her tears are caused by anxiety for Egypt’s safety. The King appears with Ramfis and a royal retinue, and learns from a messenger that the Ethiopians have invaded Egypt and, under their king, Amonasro, are marching on Thebes. The King announces that Isis has chosen Radames to be the leader of Egypt’s hosts. Amneris places the royal banner in his eager hand, and to the sounds of a patriotic march he is led away to the temple of Ptah (the Egyptian Vulcan), there to receive his consecrated armor and arms. “Return a victor!” shout the hosts, and Aïda, carried away by her love, joins in the cry; but, left alone, she reproaches her-self for impiousness in uttering words which imply a wish for the destruction of her country, her father, and her kinsmen. (Scena: “Ritorna vincitor.”) Yet could she wish for the defeat and the death of the man she loves? She prays the gods to pity her sufferings (“Numi, pieta”). Before a colossal figure of the god in the temple of Ptah, while the sacred fires rise upward from the tripods, and priestesses move through the figures of the sacred dance or chant a hymn to the Creator, Preserver, Giver, of Life and Light, the consecrated sword is placed in the hands of Radames.
It is in this scene that the local color is not con-fined to externals alone, but infuses the music as well. Very skilfully Verdi makes use of two melodies which are saturated with the languorous spirit of the East. The first is the invocation of Ptah, chanted by an in-visible priestess to the accompaniment of a harp.
The tunes are said to be veritable Oriental strains which some antiquary (perhaps Mariette himself) put into the hands of Verdi. The fact that their characteristic elements were nowhere else employed by the composer, though he had numerous opportunities for doing so, would seem to indicate that Verdi was chary about venturing far into the territory of musical nationalism. Perhaps he felt that his powers were limited in this direction, or that he might better trust to native expression of the mood into which the book had wrought him. The limitation of local color in his music is not mentioned as a defect in the opera, for it is replaced at the supreme moments, especially that at the opening of the third act, with qualities far more entrancing than were likely to have come from the use of popular idioms. Yet, the two Oriental melodies having been mentioned, it is well to look at their structure to discover the source of their singular charm. There is no mystery as to the cause in the minds of students of folk-song. The tunes are evolved from a scale so prevalent among peoples of Eastern origin that it has come to be called the Oriental scale. Its distinguishing characteristic is an interval, which contains three semitones.
The interval occurring twice in this scale is en-closed in brackets. Its characteristic effect is most obvious when the scale is played downward. A beautiful instance of its artistic use is in Rubin-stein’s song “Der Asra.” The ancient synagogal songs of the Jews are full of it, and it is one of the distinguishing marks of the folk-songs of Hungary (the other being rhythmical), as witness the “Rakoczy March.” In some of the Eastern songs it occurs once, in some twice (as in the case of the melodies printed above), and there are instances of a triple use in the folk-songs of the modern Greeks.
Act II. News of the success of the Egyptian expedition against the Ethiopians has reached Amneris, whose slaves attire her for the scene of Radames’s triumph. The slaves sing of Egypt’s victory and of love, the princess of her longing, and Moorish slaves dance before her to dispel her melancholy. Aida comes, weighed down by grief. Amneris lavishes words of sympathy upon her, and succeeds in making her betray her love for Radames by saying that he had been killed in battle. Then she confesses the falsehood and proclaims her own passion and purpose to crush her rival, who shall appear at the triumph of Radames as her slave. Aida’s pride rebels for the moment, and she almost betrays her own exalted station as the daughter of a king. As a slave she accompanies the princess to the entrance gate of Thebes, where the King, the priests, and a vast concourse of people are to welcome Radames and witness his triumphal entry. Ra-dames, with ,his troops and a horde of Ethiopian prisoners, comes into the city in a gorgeous pageant.
The procession is headed by two groups of trumpeters, who play a march melody, the stirring effect of which is greatly enhanced by the characteristic tone quality of the long, straight instruments which they use.
A word about these trumpets. In shape, they recall antique instruments, and the brilliancy of their tone is due partly to the calibre of their straight tubes and partly to the fact that nearly all the tones used are open that is, natural harmonics of the fundamental tones of the tubes. There is an anachronism in the circumstance that they are provided with valves (which were not invented until some thousands of years after the period of the drama), but only one of the valves is used, The first trumpets are in the key of A-flat and the second B-natural, a peculiarly stirring effect being produced by the sudden shifting of the key of the march when the second group of trumpeters enters on the scene.
The King greets Radames with an embrace, bids him receive the wreath of victory from the hands of his daughter and ask whatever boon he will as a reward for his services. He asks, first, that the prisoners be brought before the King. Among them Aida recognizes her father, who is disguised as an officer of the Ethiopian army. The two are in each other’s arms in a moment, but only long enough for Amonasro to caution his daughter not to betray him. He bravely confesses that he had fought for king and country, and pleads for clemency for the prisoners. They join in the petition, as does Aida, and though the priests warn and protest, Radames asks the boon of their lives and freedom, and the King grants it. Also, without the asking, he bestows the hand of his daughter upon the victorious general, who receives the undesired honor with consternation.
Transporting beauty rests upon the scene which opens the third act. The moon shines brightly on the rippling surface of the Nile and illumines a temple of Isis, perched amongst the tropical foliage which crowns a rocky height. The silvery sheen is spread also over the music, which arises from the orchestra like a light mist burdened with sweet odors. Amneris enters the temple to ask the blessing of the goddess upon her marriage, and the pious canticle of the servitors within floats out on the windless air. A tone of tender pathos breathes through the music which comes with Aida, who is to hold secret con-verse with her lover. Will he come ? And if so, will he speak a cruel farewell and doom her to death within the waters of the river? A vision of her native land, its azure skies, verdant vales, per-fumed breezes, rises before her. Shall she never see them more? Her father comes upon her. He knows of her passion for Radames, but also of her love for home and kindred. He puts added hues into the picture with which her heavy fancy had dallied, and then beclouds it all with an account of homes and temples profaned, maidens ravished, grandsires, mothers, children, slain by the oppressor. Will she aid in the deliverance? She can by learning from her lover by which path the Egyptians will march against the Ethiopians, who are still in the field, though their king is taken. That she will not do. But Amonasro breaks down her resolution. Hers will be the responsibility for torrents of blood, the destruction of cities, the devastation of her country. No longer his daughter she, but a slave of the Pharaohs ! Her lover comes. She affects to repulse him because of his betrothal to Amneris, but he protests his fidelity and discloses his plan. The Ethiopians are in revolt again. Again he will defeat them, and, returning again in triumph, he will tell the King of his love for her and thereafter live in the walks of peace. But Aida tells him that the vengeance of Amneris will pursue her, and urges him to fly with her. Reluctantly he consents, and she, with apparent innocence, asks by which path they shall escape the soldiery. Through the gorge of Napata ; ’twill be unpeopled till to-morrow, for it has been chosen as the route by which the Egyptian advance shall be made. Exulting, Amonasro rushes from his place of concealment. At the gorge of Napata will he place his troops he the King of Ethiopia ! Radames has betrayed his country. Amneris comes out of the temple, and Amonasro is about to poignard her when Radames throws himself between. To the high priest, Ramfis, he yields himself and his sword. Amonasro drags Aida away with him.
We reach the last act of the drama. Radames is to be tried for treason in having betrayed a secret of war to his country’s enemy. Amneris fain would save him were he to renounce Aida and accept her love. She offers on such terms to intercede for him with her father, the king. From her Radames learns that Aida escaped the guards who slew her father. He is resolute to die rather than prove faithless to her, and is led away to the subterranean trial chamber. Amneris, crouched without, hears the accusing voices of the priests and the awful silence which follows each accusation; for Radames refuses to answer the charges. The priests pronounce sentence: Burial alive ! Amneris hurls curses after them, but they depart, muttering, “Death to the traitor !”
Radames is immured in a vault beneath the temple of Vulcan, whose sacred priestesses move in solemn steps above, while he gropes in the darkness below. Never again shall light greet his eyes, nor sight of Aida. A groan. A phantom rises be-fore him, and Aida is at his side. She had fore-seen the doom of her lover, and entered the tomb before him to die in his arms. Together they say their farewell to. the vale of tears, and their streaming eyes have a prevision of heaven. Above in the temple a figure, shrouded in black, kneels upon the stone which seals the vault and implores Isis to cease her resentment and give her adored one peace. It is Amneris.