One of Giuseppe Verdi's most significant works and the grandest of grand operas, Aida, had its premiere at the Cairo Opera House on Christmas Eve 1871.
Aida tells the story of a love triangle in ancient Egypt: Radames, a captain of the Egyptian guard, is secretly in love with Aida, daughter of the king of Ethiopia and a slave at the Egyptian court. Aida returns Radames love, but he is also loved by Amneris, the daughter of the king of Egypt.
Tricked into revealing military secrets, Radames is sentenced to be buried alive. Aida joins him in a tomb beneath the temple, determined to die with him. Radames and Aida are faced with saying goodbye to earth as the air supply in their underground tomb brings on death by suffocation.
Today we are listening to Leontyne Price, and Carlo Bergonzi sing the final scene from Aida, “O terra addio” (“Oh earth, farewell”).
Like Maria Callas, Leontyne Price has an immediately recognizable sound coupled with an innate interpretative intensity. I think it’s the most exquisite, perfect "O terra addio" ever recorded.
🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): “O terra addio”, from Verdi’s Aida, Leontyne Price (Aida), Carlo Bergonzi (Radames), Rita Gorr (Amneris), Metropolitan Opera, 1963, Georg Solti, conductor
As I was researching this week, I came across this post by Glenn Winters that I thought did a fantastic job of explaining the genius of Verdi, finding meaning under the hood, and how his work has influenced others:
In an inspired bit of orchestration, observe that, as Aida introduces the melody of the finale, the strings are playing a thread of softly sustained notes in their highest register; this is a metaphor for the thinning-out of oxygen as death approaches.
But the tune itself features an upward leap of an octave, approached from the half-step below, obviously a gesture of reaching upward for the eternal life all Egyptians expected:
For the second time in this post, I wonder if any aspect of the theme strikes you as familiar from another context. It should. “O terra addio” has three grandchildren; one each in music theater, film and opera.
The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy's iconic “Somewhere over the rainbow” begins with its own upward leap of an octave. I need not point out that rainbows are “up there” - in the sky.
West Side Story: The song “There's a place for us”, sung by Consuelo is an anthem for the Puerto Rican teens who feel alienated in New York. The melody follows the pattern of a “reaching” gesture, this time falling one step short of an octave, only to make it all the way up on a second effort. Bernstein likely had Beethoven in mind more than Aida, as the opening phrase is a clone of a portion of the slow movement of Beethoven's “Emperor” piano concerto. But the symbolism matches that of Verdi.
Susannah: The title character of Carlisle Floyd's American opera sings the aria "Ain't it a pretty night" in Act I, in its affect and declaration of hopes and dreams, it has always struck me as a forerunner of Ariel's song “Part of their world” in the animated musical The Little Mermaid. Both characters feel trapped in the confines of their limited environments and long to explore new horizons. But only Susannah’s solo contains the Aida-like leap from "do" to "ti", one half-step short of the octave. Unlike "O terra addio", which then continues on up to the full octave, "Pretty night" falls a full-step down from its highest note. Here's a facile but possibly valid interpretation of the difference in meaning: Aida and Radames, in their minds at least, make it to eternal life above the "vale di pianti" of earthly sadness; thus, they "make it" up to the octave. Susannah, as events unfold, ends up a permanent prisoner of her isolated cabin, a lifetime of bitterness stretching out in front of her. She doesn't make it all the way up.
Aida is an opera that embodies Verdi’s music wholeheartedly, from high-octane orchestration, a suspenseful and engaging libretto, and some of the most beautiful lyricism Verdi ever wrote for the human voice.
Stay tuned for more Aida and, as always, more Verdi.
Thank you for reading (and listening),
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