Sunday, April 26, 2015

Death-Free Drama

So, nobody dies in Aida.

How's that for a hook? Definitely a good tagline for an opera, "Nobody dies!" isn't it? I'd go see that opera.

But really, think about the plot of Aida for a moment. Set in ancient times, there's a king of a country near northern Africa, and he's fighting against a certain people to whom go our sympathies. This king's daughter is involved in a love triangle with a member of said people and a conflicted third party with interests in both factions. The members of the love triangle are a soprano, a mezzo, and a tenor, but not necessarily in that order. Anyway, through some shenanigans, the conflicted third party is sentenced to death, but don't worry, because member of fought-against-people-to-whom-go-our-sympathies and conflicted third party both survive the Act IV curtain, and presumably live happily ever after. Oh, also, there's a famous chorus in the second scene of some act or another that has people singing about their homeland.

Why yes, I am using these incredibly vague descriptors to talk about about Nabucco!

I'm not going to pretend that Aida and Nabucco share a synopsis, because they don't, but there is at least similarity enough, even in the setting, that it makes sense to analyze these two operas together, particularly as an observation of Verdi throughout his career, Nabucco being his third opera, and the one that made him a real hit, and Aida being his third-to-last, as if that were an important number.

Verdi, aside from being the most popular Italian opera composer ever, with La Traviata being the number one opera worldwide according to Operabase, is arguably the most important Italian opera composer ever. True, Rossini was king in his day, but his operas were written to be disposable. Of his thirty-nine, only Il Barbriere Di Siviglia and La Cenerentola really stuck, though some of his grander operas like Semiramide and La Donna Del Lago make their rounds once in a while. Verdi made opera stick, and was the primary transitional composer of his time, coming in on the heels of the bel canto era, and paving the way for Puccini. Puccini never did anything quite so grand, but I could see him having written, say, Falstaff. And at the same time, it isn't hard to imagine that Rossini or Donizetti might have written Ernani. Verdi crossed an incredible range in his career, and of his thirty or so operas (depending on how you count revisions), ten of them make Operabase's top fifty. (For comparison, the next two leaders, Mozart and Puccini, each have five.)

Nabucco comes across about as you might expect an opera seria in the bel canto era. The dialogue is conveyed in recitativo accompagnato, often followed by a cavatina to which a cabaletta is attached. Regular bel canto fare, and for Nabucco, it fares very well. Some of the arias, particularly Zaccaria's, might run a little long, but Nabucco is an opera that runs on high strung emotional characters, shocking revelations, and epiphanies. Excellent subject matter for all sorts of exciting cabalettas. Meanwhile, Aida is an opera that runs on high strung emotional characters, shocking revelations, and epiphanies. Not good subject matter for wasting time of cabalettas.

Actually, Aida doesn't run on its characters, or even the plot, even though it's a pretty good one. Aida runs on the setting. It's the big opera everyone knows that takes place in ancient Egypt and might have an elephant. It's the archetypal grand opera. People go and see Nabucco for the script and the music, but people flock to see Aida for the spectacle.

Truth be told, I'm not exactly sure how to reconcile this with the different musical treatments Verdi gives them. In all honesty, it probably doesn't matter. They could have been written in the reverse order, and then I'd be talking about Nabucco as the spectacle and Aida as the bel canto follow-up. But grand opera was a thing in the bel canto era, and Rossini's Guillaume Tell runs just fine on recitativo accompagnato and his usual cavatina/cabaletta aria format, and Ponchielli's La Gioconda on its more through-composed verismo style. I would say Nabucco benefits from its late-bel-canto-ness, but that's because it has. Similarly how Aida has benefited from its early-verismo-ness. I'd be better off comparing the dozen different operatic adaptations of Jerusalem Delivered, but Verdi didn't write any of those.

Something curious in the development from recitative to through-composedness is how Verdi handles it toward the middle of his career. All over Rigoletto and Il Trovatore and, my favorite of his, La Traviata, is something that's not quite accompanied recitative, but still not what you might call a song. See the famous duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile for a prime example. The orchestra is playing a rather hummable tune. Catchy, even. It moves along nicely. Meanwhile, our baritone and bass are singing over it in what feels like the regular pace of dialogue and normal recitative, occasionally slipping into the tune. This is not Verdi's invention. Mozart uses the in Le Nozze Di Figaro in the Act III finale. During the dance scene (or starting at Ecco La Marcia), the orchestra is playing a dance tune, but the characters are still singing what feels like recitative. La Traviata uses it an awful lot, which makes sense considering about half of that opera takes place at assorted parties. It's a curious thing, and an interesting step in the development of recitative -- or away from recitative, if you prefer. Aida seems to do away with the recitative altogether. By the time we get to Puccini, yes there are some clear individual arias, but it's not so clear what comes in between them.

Aida also notably does something interesting with the overture. Originally, Verdi had planned on writing a potpourri-style overture, like he did with Nabucco. But this was scrapped for something else. A prelude, very serene to start, but which picks up and then draws back again. That doesn't really matter. What does matter is that there does not feel to be a break between where the prelude ends and the opera begins. Yes, there is a distinct line that you can cut off at for the track listing, but the opera begins with what feels like an extension of the overture. Not like Rigoletto or La Traviata, which open with dark or grim themes, setting up the opera as a whole, while opening the first act itself with a wild party. That contrast is, I think, what makes those preludes so fantastic, because it is a contrast that pervades those entire operas, and the opening scene of any stage performance is an establishing moment that must be perfect. Nabucco's establishing moment, its overture of the potpourri style, tells the audience that this is a showpiece. A dramatic one, but a showpiece. It sets up the bel canto feel. The feel we might expect from a Broadway show before West Side Story came along with its ballet-prologue rather than an overture. Aida sets up something different. Something more serious. The audience is paying attention to the prelude, but at some point the prelude becomes the opera, and before you know it, you're halfway through the exposition. It sets up the opera to be immersive. And indeed, while in Nabucco the audience is thrilled by the vocal acrobatics and the wonderful melodies, in Aida, the audience is totally encapsulated all the way through to the happy ending.

Yes, it took me this long to come to the point where nobody dies in Aida. Well, now that you've slogged through all that, I'll come to it now. See, the curtain falls on Aida before she and Radames actually die. It falls as they're being sealed inside the tomb, but for all we know, Amneris secretly had an escape passage built in. Or the tomb isn't airtight and Aida smuggled in enough supplies to keep them going for a while while they dig themselves out. Or Godzilla smashes in and rescues them. Yes, it's cheap (though there have been other resolutions in operas just about as cheap), but it got you reading, didn't it?

1 comment:

  1. Hahaha! Love that opening line! But I have to respectfully differ here. I only love the operas where people die, the gorier the better. Preferably after falling miserably in unrequited love with a totally Wrong Person. My preferred method is death by parapet. But really anything will do. As long as the soon-to-be-dead person sings right up to his or her end.

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