Thoughts on Aida

© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

On Tuesday I went to see a cinema screening of Verdi's opera Aida. I have only seen two operas before - again, at the cinema - and I thoroughly enjoyed them both; they were Mozart's The Magic Flute and Puccini's La bohème. So I was very enthusiastic about Aida; it originally premièred in 1871, and its ancient Egypt-set story follows the title character, an enslaved Ethiopian princess, and Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt, vying for the love of the commander of the King's armies, Radamès. Meanwhile, the Egyptians and Ethiopians wage war.

Firstly, as is only natural when discussing opera, I must talk about the music. Personally, I am a lover of a strong melody, which I felt Aida lacked compared to the previous operas I have seen. Nevertheless, some pieces truly stood out, such as the otherworldly, ethereal, holy sound that narrates the consecration scene in the Temple of Vulcan. The High Priestess' voice was as delicate as a whisper, and I thought the dance of the priestesses was particularly attractive. I did like the way Aida incorporated dance as well as song, sometimes drifting into the territory of all-out ballet. Ah, perhaps this is normal for opera; it's been a long time since I saw La bohème, and I am inclined to forget.

The set design was grand and lavish, as it must be with an ancient Egyptian setting. But most of all, where Aida is concerned, I was impressed with the opera's multifaceted antagonists.

The King of Egypt cannot really be called a villain; he is merely a statesman doing his job. The same could be said of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia and father to Aida. While he does sneakishly persuade Aida to coax military secrets from Radamès, he does not do so without his daughter's happiness in mind. He considers it merely her duty to her country, and tells her, not unjustifiably, that if she can get Radamès to betray Egypt and join the Ethiopian side, they can live happily ever after as future King and Queen of Ethiopia. Indeed, the conflict between personal love and love of country is a major theme.

Spoilers from here on in; when Radamès does unintentionally reveal military secrets to Aida and therefore Amonasro, Amneris overhears and, jealous of Radamès and Aida's love, rats them out to the Egyptian authorities.

Is Amneris, then, the antagonist? If she is, she's not the stereotypical jealous Disney queen, for she has a sympathetic side. Her jealousy conflicts with her enduring love for Radamès, and as he is entombed alive along with Aida by the Egyptian priesthood, she regrets that she ever sold him out ("Alas .. I feel death .. Radamès, your fate is decided"). As Radamès and Aida die, Amneris' heart breaks with regret. It's as much a tragedy for her as it is for them.

Perhaps the real villain, therefore, is the heartless bureaucracy of the Egyptian priesthood under high priest Ramfis. But even the priests, warlike and xenophobic though they are, cannot be blamed for sentencing Radamès to death when he refuses to testify in his defence. The story of Aida I would summarise therefore as a "sad farce" - no single person is really to blame; our heroes are merely crushed under the chaotic, conflicting pressures of worldly fate. I was not expecting this kind of nuance after seeing The Magic Flute - while the Flute is delightful, its story is somewhat of a simplistic fairytale (though it has deeper symbolic meanings).

I hail from a village in Cambridgeshire. While it is otherwise abundant in the arts, Cambridge is a small city without large-scale opera productions such as this. While I do aspire someday to see opera in person, the introduction of these cinema screenings has made opera accessible to me and thousands of others beyond London who cannot reach the Royal Opera House so easily. In fact, this particular production was from the Metropolitan Opera in America. It would have been a terrible shame for those wonderful performances - of Anna Netrebko as Aida, and Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris - to be heard by American ears only, when they deserve an international audience. The cinema can provide that audience.

A century ago when cinema was first introduced, many thought it would replace the theatre. But the demand for theatrical drama has never disappeared, and Broadway & the West End thrive to this day. We may be entering a second entertainment revolution presently with the mass introduction of streaming services. Some are looking to this, and Disney's monotonous monopolisation of film, as the death of the cinema. But I disagree. The unparalleled quality and communal atmosphere of the big screen will not die so long as there are people who still savour film as an art form. And while it wouldn't be impossible for Netflix to "stream" Aida or La bohème for you to watch at home, the audiovisual quality, and communal atmosphere of mutual emotional investment, of a cinema screening, will always be the closest thing to visiting an opera house itself. Good cinemas nowadays not only screen operas, but plays, musicals, and ballets too. By moving in a more artistic direction, cinema can survive as an oasis of culture; a home for true connoisseurs of audiovisual splendour of all varieties, while the disinterested masses turn to their streaming services for a steady supply of Disney's corporate schlock.