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Verdi’s Aida Triumphs in Detroit

by Susan Bowen
 May 2013

Giuseppe Verdi .

Opera by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni
Based on the prose of Camille du Locle and Auguste Mariette
Premiere: Cairo in December 1871 and Milan 1872

Aida: Yannick Muriel Noah, Soprano
Amneris : Milijana Nikolic, Mezzo Soprano
Radames: Rosario La Spina, Tenor  
Ramphis: Peter Volpe,  Bass
Amonasro:  Gordon Hawkins, Baritone 
King Of Egypt: Andrew Gray, Baritone 
Priestess:  Angela Theis,  Soprano
Messenger: Yongmin Kim

Steven Mercurio, Conductor
Bliss Hebert, Director  

Detroit Opera House/John Grigaitis

Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theater concluded its 2013 spring season with an excellent production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida, which was an appropriate celebration of the 200th anniversary of the distinguished composer’s birth.  Ancient Egypt is the setting for this dramatic tale of the Ethiopian princess Aida, who is not only the captive slave of the Egyptian princess Anmeris, but is also her rival in the love for the young and brave Egyptian military hero Radames. More than a love triangle with a tragic ending, Verdi's Aida explores the agony of war, which was perpetual in Europe and beyond, and it addresses the responsibilities of leadership and the emotional distress that comes with it.  The capture of the Ethiopian forces and their leader Amonasro, whom the Egyptians know only as Aida’s father, but not as king, gives Verdi a new frame of reference in which to revisit the recurring motif of father-daughter relationships, which he amply develops in previous works.  It is the resonance of all the universal themes that Verdi had so beautifully woven into all his late operas, carefully interlaced with the particulars of the setting of Pharonic Egypt in Aida, that makes this opera magnificent. Verdi was quite satisfied with the overall concept and plan, and the Egyptian set designs, the trumpeters, harps, dancers, jewelry, costumes, and the offstage voice of the priestess enhanced the effect.

Out of Retirement

Detroit Opera House/John Grigaitis

Giuseppe Verdi, the composer, statesman, farmer, businessman, and Italian patriot, created Aida as a beautiful work of art, in which capacity he could intervene into the degenerating political conditions on the continent and beyond. This masterpiece, which brought the maestro out of his retirement from composing, was overseen by him in every detail from its conception through its Cairo premiere in December 1871, (by his letters), to its big premiere in Milan, in 1872. He managed the arrangements also for the other openings in the other Italian cities.  Verdi worked tirelessly on the libretto itself, the score, the costumes, which were delayed due to the Franco Prussian War, the scenery, the props, and the idea. The maestro personally rehearsed the singers, the orchestra, the ballets, and the chorus, arranged the seating of the orchestra, and developed precisely how to change the stage itself for the correct effect.  He wanted the Egyptian dance to be as authentic as possible in tempo, style and costume, set, of course, to the grand music which he himself composed.

Auguste Mariette (1821-1881), a passionate French Egyptologist, had written an outline set in his beloved Egypt, and the Khedive Ismail Pasha (ruler of Egypt and Sudan from 1863-1879) commissioned him to transform it into an opera. Mariette took it to Paris, where the librettist (of Don Carlo) Camille du Locle developed it and undertook the task of convincing Verdi to accept the Pasha’s offer to transform it into an opera. Verdi, the most famous composer by 1870, had twice before refused commissions for Cairo, but the enchanting potential of this drama captivated him, and he began researching the background and history of Egypt and Ethiopia, the kings, the religions, the wars, the dress, habits, and the music and instruments. The French libretto was translated and versified by Antonio Ghislanzoni (1824-1893), and together he and Verdi labored over the poetry. The Verdi letters, documents, correspondence and facsimiles provide a wealth of insight into his creative thinking and the process of producing the effects that he wanted.

Aida in Detroit 

This MOT production took great care in presenting the mise-en-scène, which refers to the aspects of the set design and visual theme that Verdi insisted must artfully accompany the poetry, drama and music on stage. Although not precisely as Verdi writes in his extensive notes on the subject, it worked well for the MOT stage, with the design presenting monumental displays of what was ancient Egypt, in its various ceremonies and events.

Detroit Opera House/John Grigaitis

The singers in this cast (May 17) increasingly drew in the audience as the opera unfolded.. Right from the outset, the tension was created which portends that which is yet to come, as the excellent bass voice of Peter Volpe as Ramfis, in the role that is reminiscent of the evil Grand Inquisitor of Don Carlo, engages in dialogue with tenor Rosario La Spina, leading into his “Celeste Aida.”  Milijana Nikolic as Anmeris has a very rich mezzo voice, but too often the orchestra’s forte overshadowed her in the middle range, and thus we missed some of the poetry in the ensembles. One aspect of the genius of Verdi’s composition is seen is the manner in which he painted a musical picture using all the different vocal colors of the human singing voice. And although here, the singers flourished in the super high and impressed with the super low notes, the entire compass of the voice must be respected if the “whole” is to be truly heard.  Yannick Muriel Noah as Aida moved the soul as she soared up to the high register, forte, and floated there to a fine pianissimo. Her facility with this is to be admired, but the dramatic impact suffered slightly from its repetition without variation in each of her arias. Amonasro was presented powerfully by Gordon Hawkins, and his duet with Aida was performed with great fervor.

There were many memorable scenes in this performance, and as I mentioned above, the elaborate processions, the scenes with of the victorious troops and the priests well done. It was wonderful to see small but important elements, performed with passion, like the shock into reality after the unambiguous realization Aida has after singing “Ritorna Vincitor” with the Egyptian masses, and similarly after Anmeris sings “Die Traitors, Death!” about her beloved. Each of the women catch themselves being overtaken by zeal, and reflect on it from a higher standpoint. (“O, what am I saying!”) Well done.

Detroit Opera House/John Grigaitis

The emotional intensity increases as the opera moves through the four acts, and culminates in the final scene after the priests' verdict is sung. The scene is divided into 2 levels-the upper level is the temple and the lower level is the tomb. Rademes has been condemned to be buried alive, and Aida has hidden in the crypt where he finds her. They sing a farewell duet (“O terra addio”) as the chorus of priests and priestesses chant in the background. Anmeris appears on top of the tomb. 

Verdi rewrote this last section himself:

"I should like to avoid the usual death agonies, and not have words like 'I'm failing, I'm going before you. Wait for me. She is dead, I'm still alive, etc.' I should like something sweet, other-worldly, a very, very short duet, a farewell to life. Aida should then fall calmly into the arms or Radames. immediately, Amneris, kneeling on the stone of the vault, should sing a Requiescant in pacem, etc.(“rest in peace”) .  I shall write the scene down to explain myself better."

Verdi asked Ghislanzoni to improve on what he wrote, but then decided to use the text he had written himself.  Anmeris opens the final trio after the priests:

“Pace t’imploro, salma adorate        Peace, I beseech you adored corpse
 Isi placate ti schiuda il ciel.             May Isis, assuaged, open heaven to you.

And Aida and Radames sing 
Si Schiude il ciel………….             Heaven is opening…   

When you hear this, it is so clear that it is not just the peace of the grave, of course, but the necessary peace among nations that is at issue here. This was powerful and skillfully communicated, whether consciously or not, by the singers at the MOT. And how urgent is this message for today’s leaders, as war, including world war with its dire consequences, rears its ugly head everywhere.  “Pace, t'imploro, pace, pace!”   Even though this scene was  disturbed by a loud distracting noise behind the scenes which marred its perfection, it was probably the most exquisite in the drama, beyond even “Ritorna Vincitor” and the triumphal march. The trio did an extraordinary job - singing beautifully above the disturbance, with a passion and emotion that had developed over the course of the performance, and which prevailed.

Beauty is Truth

I found it to be immensely interesting that in at least eleven of Verdi’s translated letters preceding the premieres of Aida, he insisted on the importance of the proper tuning (diapason) for its production.  As a scientific classical composer, he had proposed and fought for the diapason to be standardized, such that a standard concert pitch for all the orchestras and bands be set throughout Europe. In 1859, after a conference of composers, musicians and scientists was held, France established the A at 435 Hz. Verdi continued to call for the tuning of A at 432 Hz, and he succeeded, after an 1881 conference of Italian musicians led to the establishment of an 1884 law, setting the pitch at A= 432 Hz in Italy which they calculated as corresponding to C at 256 Hz.   (“On the selection of a normal tuning for musical works and for bands of the Royal Army (Savona 1884) which accompanies the "Instructions on the new normal tuning" issued by the Minister of War in 1884 for adoption of A-432 as the "scientific tuning.")*  

For Aida, Verdi commissioned the production of certain new instruments - which had to be specially produced – for a more Egyptian sound, and also to ensure that trumpets and brass would be in tune with the rest of the orchestra. Nowadays the musical establishment insists that changing instruments to cohere with proper tuning would be too massive a proposition, but when the Schiller Institute launched the Verdi tuning initiative in 1988, we contacted instrument makers as well as professional opera singers, and musicians, 2000 of whom endorsed the call for the scientific lower tuning.  Stringed instruments resonated much more beautifully at the lower tuning, and even the Milan wind instrument makers - the same who, were entrusted by  the War Ministry in 1884 to change all the wind instruments in the Italian military bands to the new tuning, said that  it is completely feasible to do again.

Imagine the enhanced expression, color and depth of a performance of  Aida if the orchestra and singers adhered to the tuning that the composer insisted upon. Let us honor and celebrate the genius of Giuseppe Verdi, and do justice to his life and work, in this anniversary year of 2013.  Let us return to the Verdi Tuning. It is a critical step towards an urgently needed new cultural renaissance. 


* "Revive Verdi's Tuning To Bring Back Great Music", EIR, Vol. 15, No. 32, August 12, 1988, pp. 31-32:
The only instruments which do not appear to suffer immediate harm are the winds. Many wind instruments underwent changes at the end of the 19th century, when the race  toward high tuning began at the initiative of the Russian and Austrian military bands and of Richard Wagner, who personally went to many wind instrument builders to obtain higher instruments, with the idea that the sound of the winds should prevail over the other instruments and the voices. It is no accident that one spoke of the decree of Verdi and the Italian musicians as the "war of the uvulas against the brasses." Even so, the Orsi Company of Milan, to which the War Ministry in 1884 entrusted the job of changing all the wind instruments in the Italian military bands to the new tuning (A = 432), complains in a letter sent to the Schiller Institute immediately after the April 9, 1988 conference, that the modem tendency to order wind instruments which are tuned higher and higher, makes it impossible to hold even the A = 440 tuning established by convention and respected by no one, perhaps because of the very fact that it is only a conventional measure. According to the Orsi firm, it is completely feasible to build wind instruments tuned to Verdi's concert A, and the molds still exist; what counts, for winds as well as for the other instruments and the voice, is to establish one tuning and stick to it.

** These photos show the alternate MOT Aida cast for this production, rather than the singers mentioned above.