A song of love and death

Opéra de Montréal stages Verdi’s colossal Aida for first time in 10 years

By Robert Kilborn

May the sacred sword, tempered by the gods, become in your hand blazing terror and death for the enemy.

–High Priest Ramfis to Warrior Radames

What does it mean to fall in love with your enemy? How do religion and state control a people in war and peace? Can a nation balance security with compassion?

Like Romeo and Juliet, or Antony and Cleopatra, Aida and Radames disappoint their families, betray their people, and break faith with their gods. They then die as one in the radiance of a thousand suns. Their very names emblematize sublime, catastrophic love.

Such love is politically, familially, and eternally problematic. Look: shaven-headed French women paraded through the streets of France in 1944, jeered at and spat upon for their “collaboration horizontale” with the Nazis. Look again: the persistent “honour killings” of Muslim girls whose families murder them when they fall in love with the wrong boy.

Aida’s plight is our plight. We struggle with passion versus duty, loyalties divided, the separation of individual conscience from religion and politics or, worse, politicized religion. Mostly, we suffer under self-delusions about our status and nature as Homo sapiens, the most deadly predators the world has ever known.

Mostly, we suffer under self-delusions about our status and nature as Homo sapiens, the most deadly predators the world has ever known.

The P-P-Power of love

Aida, an Ethiopian princess forced into Egyptian servitude, and Radames, Captain of the Egyptian Guard, love one another with mystical fervour. Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian King, loves Radames, and expects to marry him. As themes of jealousy, deception and betrayal unspool, the Egyptian King rules, Amonasro the captured Ethiopian King plots, and Ramfis the Egyptian High Priest judges. (The first words sung in the opera are those of Ramfis, who conveniently speaks on behalf of the goddess Isis.) Sub-themes of political exigency and religious justification for slavery and murder twist the ceremonious dagger.

Frightful conflicts inform Aida’s every phrase. How can she love a man who helped conquer her nation? How can she not? Will she betray her father and country for love? We feel the fierce, remorseless, and fatal ardor of Radames. Will he betray his king and country for love? The noble defiance of Amonasro, the rapturous despair of Amneris, move us to pity. But in the end, love, the straddler of souls, blots out despair—or is it hope? The reality of love encourages the religious delusion of a better world to come, of ancient Egyptian (or Christian or Hindu or Buddhist) notions of immortality.

Anna Markarova and Kamen Chanev aida opera de montreal

Russian soprano Anna Markarova sings Aida and Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev sings Radames.

The plot is thick

According to Frank Walker’s Verdi the Man, Giuseppe Verdi, a contemporary of Charles Dickens, was an atheist. In his early operas, he sympathized with the Risorgomento movement to unify Italy. He also briefly served as an elected politician. Starting in 1848, in defiance of much head-wagging, finger-pointing, and open scandal, he set up house with his lover, soprano Giuseppina Strepponi. She had sung in his first opera Oberto in 1839. The lovers eventually married in 1859.

Verdi’s convictions, experiences, and defiances will have to some degree coloured his musical genius. But like all genius, Verdi’s transcends the temporal concerns and the petty judgements of an age. Verdi the artist transcends the intent of his genius. His works leave us with an overplus of aesthetic and intellectual matter that may have never entered the mind of the composer.

A scene in Act Two shows the abject Ethiopian slaves paraded before the Egyptian court. Radames, fresh from his triumph as commander, having crushed the Ethiopians, his heart softened by his love for Aida, asks his King to grant the Ethiopian slaves their lives. Ramfis and his priests call for their execution. Compassion and state security contend. Do we imprison or put our enemies to death in fear of what they may do to us if we don’t? Or do we show mercy, and perhaps risk our own destruction? In the end, compromise. Aida and her father King Amonasro remain as hostages to ensure that the Ethiopians do not avenge their defeat.

Recent debates in Europe and America over immigration, security and compassion reflect similar complexities. Can countries like Germany, Italy, and France welcome millions of refugees and economic migrants without undermining their own culture, identity, and nationhood? Is Islam compatible with democracy, human rights, secular law, tolerance of difference and the equal status of women? Is the Euro-American imperium analogous to that of ancient Egypt? Or has it (and have we) transcended such concerns?

Verdi the artist transcends the intent of his genius. His works leave us with an overplus of aesthetic and intellectual matter that may have never entered the mind of the composer.

The fictions of state, religion, money, law, and human rights create civilization. Cultural critics such as Edward Said have attacked Aida for its “Orientalism.” In a famous essay, Said argued that Aida was implicated in nineteenth-century colonial expansion. Three years ago, mega-pop singer Katy Perry opened the American Music Awards with a geisha-inspired performance of her single, “Unconditionally.” Journalists and social media detonated with hysterical attacks on Perry’s offensive “cultural appropriation” and stereotyping. At Yale University, the famous case of the “shrieking girl” combusting over “inappropriate” Halloween costumes, another recent obsession of lunatic “social justice warriors,” continues the trend. (See videos here and here.)

Never mind that such obsessions betray a monumental ignorance of history and ideas, and of how cultural and artistic influence works. Mix this anaesthetic understanding with the virtue signalling of bovine political correctness and you get, well, the weak, flat, insipid, and anodyne culture you deserve.

Good art isn’t therapy. Nor is it social justice. And it certainly isn’t a means of achieving superiority over non-Western cultures. Verdi isn’t a polemicist or imperial stooge. His concerns are dramatic. Musical details absorb him. For example, in the opera’s most famous aria, “Celeste Aida,” sung by Radames, Verdi wordpaints Aida onto a mystic pedestal with a rising melodic shape, using singsong half-rhymes and internal repetition. Low flutenotes double the voice. Very high violin tremolos round off each phrase. The effect is exotic, atmospheric, and charged with the arrows of love. Then, in the coda, Radames’ pianissimo disappears into the orchestral ambience, prefiguring his and Aida’s annihilating ardor.

Coda (pianissimo)

Someone in our own culture has spoken of “loving your enemies.” The idea was not original to him, but he popularized it. The human tragedy consists in the impossibility of applying such hopeful ideals consistently, because at times your enemy may (1) not enjoy your heartfelt recital of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and (2) relieve you of your head.

The tragedy of civilization consists in its desire for peace within the necessity of defensive war, its eternal hope of stability within eternal chaos, and its impulse toward compassion within the grim duties of power and responsibility.

In its plain and simple libretto, its gargantuan Egyptian kitsch, and its radiant song of love and death, Aida embodies this sorrowful truth.

Aida: Anna Markarova / Radames: Kamen Chanev / Amneris: Olesya Petrova / Amonasro: Kiril Manolov / Ramfis: Phillip Ens / The King of Egypt: Anatoli Sivko / Conductor: Paul Nadler / Director: François Racine / Sets: Claude Girard / Costumes: Opéra de Montréal / Lighting: Éric W. Champoux / Orchestre Métropolitain / OdM Chorus

Opéra de Montréal performs Aida on September 17, 20, 22 and 24 at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Montreal’s Place des Arts.

Feature image: Opéra de Montréal’s 2006 Aida–Yves Renaud.

photo: Robert Kilborn

Robert Kilborn has written fact and fiction for the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, La Scena Musicale, Westmount Magazine, Cult Montreal, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art (New York), and Tuck Magazine (London, England). He’s been a professional singer, a teacher, a restaurant consultant, a Don Draper, and General Manager of one of Canada’s leading modern dance companies, Anna Wyman Dance Theatre.

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