Giuseppe Verdi: “Celeste Aïda” from “Aïda”

In 2000, when I started The Musical Almanac, I couldn’t decide whether culturally, we were better or worse off than a during the 1800s. The US had just seen the impeachment of its president after a witch hunt of many years that exposed his amorous indiscretions.  The opposing party came in shortly after that and we had September 11, the War in Iraq, a global economic crisis, and what seems to be a tide of rising fundamentalism in the West.  Despite the fact that the ice caps are melting, there are stronger storms, worse droughts, and increase in certain disease, many people still deny climate change.

In other parts of the world the Internet has brought information and instantaneous communication to even the remotest parts of the globe.  As we have seen with the Arab Spring uprisings, this technology has caused an absolute explosion of ideas.  The times they are a changing.  Since it all started in North Africa, let’s look at an opera set in Pharaonic  Egypt.

Radames a young warrior in Pharaoh’s army sings the aria, Celeste Aïda (heavenly Aïda) at the beginning of the opera. The army is about to go to war with Ethiopia, and he will lead the campaign. In the aria, he declares his love for the slave girl Aïda, who is the captured daughter of the King of Ethiopia. Aïda serves Amneris, Pharaoh’s daughter, who is in love with Radames. (You can see where this is going.) In Radames’ aria he hopes that he can lead his troops well and win the battle so he can say to Aïda, “I’ve fought for you. I’ve won for you.” Then he sings:

Celeste Aïda, forma divina, Heavenly Aïda, divine shape,
Mistico serto di luce e fior,
Del mio pensiero tu sei regina
Tu di mia vita sei lo splendor.
Il tuo bel cielo vorrei ridarti,
Le dolci brezze del patrio suol :
Un regal serto sul crin posarti,
Ergerti un trono vicino al sol,
Mystic garland of light and flowers
you are queen of my thoughts
you are the splendor of my life
I would like to give you your sky back
the sweet breeze of the fatherland:
to put a regal garland on your heart
to build up a throne for you next to the sun

Such grand themes!

I wonder what connection this story had with the people of Verdi’s day.  Aïda is based on a story created by a leading Egyptologist of the day. The previous century Napoleon had campaigned in Egypt, and his troops discovered the Rosetta Stone. With the spoils he sent back and Champollion successfully translating hieroglyphics, Europe came under the spell of Egyptiana. Both England and France were busy building empires during the 19th century, which some might argue did more damage than any McDonalds at the foot of the Great wall of China.

Verdi wrote Aïda in 1871 for the Khedive of Egypt to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi was 58 at the time and of such a stature that he was able to command the equivalent of $200,000 in today’s money, to write the opera. It premiered in Cairo on Christmas Eve and in Milan about a month and a half later. It was met with immediate success and remains a standard of the repertoire.

When Verdi died in 1901, the entire population of Italy went into mourning for him. I used to marvel at this, until I moved to Naples in 1980. When I first arrived, a friend of a friend put me up in an old 18th century palazzo that had been turned into apartments. He had a daughter who was about 9 or 10 at the time. My room was next to the bathroom. One day, I awoke to the sound of this little girl, who during her morning ablutions, stopped to belt out a rousing popular Neapolitan song of the day. On another occasion, while sitting in a restaurant in the back streets of Naples one Sunday morning, a middle-aged man drove up on his Vespa on which he had affixed a crate for carrying the bottles of seltzer water he was delivering. When he alit, he stopped and suddenly burst into a beautiful love song that echoed throughout the narrow streets.

Sometimes artists put down the common people as being philistinic and unappreciative of their art, but the fact of the matter is that how technology and education is used and who uses it is a political decision with serious economic underpinnings. Before we go name calling, it’s important to figure out who’s pulling the strings.

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