One could say that Verdi’s Aida is an opera about a love triangle. A love polygon would be more accurate, as Aida has several more facets. You see, Amneris, the high-priestess of Isis, is hot for Radames, who is hot for Aida, who is Amneris’ slave and, unbeknownst to anyone is also the daughter of Amonasro who is the king of Ethiopia, which is about to attack Egypt, the king of which is the father of Amneris.
With me so far?
Radames wants to impress Aida, and what would be more impressive than, say, winning a war against a rival nation? What woman wouldn’t be charmed by a gift of diamonds, gold, and a couple of slave pool-boys? And the nation Radames will conquer for her? Why, Ethiopia, of course! Radames hopes that Isis will choose him to be the conquering general. Knowing that Amneris has a thing for him, he figures he’s got an “in” with management.
As our story opens, Radames comes storming out of the gate with Celeste Aida, a brilliant tenor party piece with beautiful pianissimo high B-flats that no one ever sings pianissimo.1. The name means “heavenly Aida”, but the gist of it can be summed up as “If I were a gen’ral … yedl deedle deedle didle didle didle didle dum. All day long I’d yedl deedle dum, if I were a ge-ner-AL!”. The Egyptian goddess Isis2 speaks, through Amneris3, saying that Radames will lead the armies of Egypt in battle against the Ethiopians. The act wraps up with a big finale wherein Ramfis4, Amneris, and Radames lead the Egyptians in a ceremony of thanks and praise to the Egyptian god Ftha5. They beseech him to look upon them favorably and help them kick Ethiopian butt all the way back to the source of the Nile. All then retire to the banquet hall for a beautifully prepared buffet dinner and dancing.
Act II: Radames and his armies win the first battle and present the captured Ethiopians to the king as slaves. But, wouldn’t you know it! Amonasro, Aida’s father, is among these slaves. He whispers6 to her not to reveal his true identity. The king, always flattered by people’s gifts – especially when the gifts themselves are people – asks what honor Radames, as conquering hero, would like. Aida discreetly pulls Radames aside to tell him that that slave, right there … no, the other one… yes, the big one … is her father, and suggests he ask for all the slaves to be freed as a sign of generosity and goodwill. Radames, really turned on by her whispering in his ear like that, mindlessly repeats her suggestion to the king, who’s been politely pretending not to see or hear any of this exchange. Amneris and the priests start to wonder whether maybe Radames has been sniffing the sacrificial incense a little too much, and counter his proposal by saying Amonasro and Aida should remain in Egypt as hostages. The king agrees, and everybody – everyone except Aida and Radames, that is – goes off to party.
Act II: She’s not the sharpest ceremonial sword in the vestry, but it finally dawns on Amneris that Radames is in love with Aida. She tricks Aida into admitting this7, and then tells her that she’ll never be good enough for Radames because she’s not royal, like Amneris. Aida avoids what could have been a literal royal smack-down scene and keeps her royal standing to her royal self and goes off to console herself by singing something down by the river in the next scene. Amneris, meanwhile, stays put and sings about how great life will be once she’s married to Radames.
Act III, scene 2: Amonasro, having seen how whipped Aida’s got Radames, reckons he can prevail upon her to get the inside dope on the Egyptian battle plan. First he tries the soft approach, telling Aida how much he missed her, how glad he is to see her, how great it’ll be when his army kills all the Egyptians so they can all go home, back to Ethiopia, and live happily ever after. Just one small problem. He needs her to get Radames to tell her where he plans to attack. She tells her father that she’s “very conflicted”, but decides that she cannot betray the man she loves. So, Amonasro starts to mess with her head. He berates her for denying her people, for forsaking her country and her heritage, for leaving the lights on after she’s left the room – it’s a “dad” thing, ok? — and reminds her of that time she crashed the family chariot right after she’d gotten her learners papyrus. This all cuts deep, but still, no sale. Finally, he goes all Reb Tevya on her and threatens to disown her, telling her that she’s no longer his daughter, just another slave of Egypt. This is more than she can bear, so she relents and reluctantly agrees to get the information from Radames, adding that it was her sister, Mildred, who was driving the chariot, not her.
Act III, Finale
Radames and Aida meet secretly in the sacred rock garden. Radames shows up, all glad to see Aida. Aida, caught between a rock and … well … another rock, begs Radames to come and run away with her to some other country8. Radames mutters something about leaving behind the fame, the glory, and the awful-tasting beer. Aida says, yes, but we’ll be together, dear. Radames, who’s beginning to sense that this is one of those “unwinnable arguments”, asks how she expects him to forget his home, his country, his beer? Aida gives him a look that says “Do I really need to answer that?” and gives him one last chance before she pulls out the big guns. Radames, now wishing she’d just asked him something he knows9 how to answer, like “Does this dress make my butt look fat?” tries to take the easy way out by changing the subject and sweet-talking her. No deal. Aida tearfully fires the next salvo: “I guess you must not love me anymore!” Radames thinks “Oh, Ftha! Here we go again.” “What do you mean, I don’t love you?” Aida replies, “I saw the way you were looking at her, I know you want Amneris.” Radames swears this isn’t true. (We’re just friends, honest!) Aida stands firm, and Radames, who, with all that military training, knows when he’s beat, says “Fine! We’ll run away together.”
Now, the opera could have just ended right here. The story was a bit contrived, but still believable10. Aida and Radames could have run, ridden, chariot-ed, or otherwise been conveyed into the sunset to, say Chad, or maybe Argentina. Instead, we are now subjected to a climactic series of Really. Dumb. Moves.
Dumb Move#1: Instead of saying “ok, let’s go”, Aida asks Radames HOW they’ll escape. He says he knows where all the armies are, so he knows which road out of town is unguarded. “Which one might that be, honey?”, asks Aida. “Napata Drive.”, he replies. I guess Radames must have been cutting class at General School the day they went over why they put the word SECRET in the term MILITARY SECRET. Or maybe, since he lives in a desert, the meaning of “Loose Lips Sink Ships” was completely lost on him. In any case, Amonasro, who’s been hiding behind another rock, overhears this, bringing us to
Dumb Move #2: Suppose you’re commanding an army and you just found out where the other army’s gonna be hiding. Do you call up the other army and taunt “I know where you’re hiding, I know where you’re hiding! Neener neener neeeeeener!”? Of course not. But, that’s pretty much what Amonasro does. He jumps out from where he’s been hiding and declares that he now knows where to attack the Egyptians. Understandably, Radames becomes pretty grumpy with Aida, and with himself for being so stupid, but … there’s still a chance to recover. He’s got options. Option 1: Kill Amonosro and tell Aida he’ll do the same to her if she breathes a word to anyone, then continue with tomorrow’s attack as planned. Option 2: pretend to run off in shame, but in actuality run back and tell the Egyptians that he’s tricked the Ethiopians into thinking Napata Drive will be unguarded so they’ll be lured there to their doom, unsuspecting. But he does neither, opting instead for
Dumb Move #3: He resigns himself to running off with Aida and her dad, leaving his armies to be slaughtered at the hands of the Ethiopians.
Right about this time, Amneris, who’s been lurking about behind yet another rock, has had about all she can stand of this idiocy (and there’s more to come) so she jumps out along with the priests and guards11, and declares Radames to be a traitor. Amonasro, backed up by basically no one, threatens to kill Amneris. Radames stops him, asking, literally “Are you nuts?” This brings us to
Dumb Move #4: Radames urges Amonasro to take Aida and flee. Now, if you were Radames, wouldn’t you sorta want to get out of Dodge yourself, with them? Does he? No. He turns to Amneris and her posse and surrenders himself to them. The upside is that we have a really nice “tenor moment” when Radames cries “Sacerdote, Io resto a te.”, which, loosely translated means “I would like to speak with an attorney.
Act IV: Scene 1 – Judgement
Radames is called before the high priests and the king. Ramfis, the high priest, tells him to defend himself, to explain his actions, but Radames remains silent. (Considering it was his big mouth that got him into this mess to begin with, he’s probably better off not saying anything.) Amneris begs Radames to come up with an explanation that will make sense of what he’s done, and allow him to escape his doom. But, as we’ve already seen, Radames isn’t all that fast on his feet when it comes to thinking12, so … he remains silent. In the end, Radames is condemned to be entombed alive13.
Act IV: Finale – the Tomb Scene
Radames mopes about the tomb while an unimaginably large slab of rock is positioned over the only exit. “I’m so screwed” – or words to that effect – he mutters to himself. As he laments no longer being able see the light of day, and how he will no longer see Aida, the gravity and enormity of his blunders being to dawn on him. “At least Aida is still alive”, he says, trying to console himself. “I hope she will find happiness, and soon forgets what a big jerk I’ve been.” (Being somewhat anal-retentive he further laments not having had mail and newspaper delivery cancelled.)
Suddenly, he hears something14. A sigh? A ghost? A vision? Nope. It’s
Dumb Move #515: Instead of heading back to Ethiopia with daddy, Aida decides, instead to hide out in the tomb and die with Radames. Why is this dumb? If she was able to sneak INTO the tomb without being noticed, don’t you think it might have been possible to sneak OUT of the tomb the same way? So she, too, had some options. Option 1: sneak in, leave a note, flowers, candy, one of those little plastic cats perpetually waving bye-bye, and sneak right back out. Her conscience would be assuaged, Radames would have his final “I love you” from her. Sure, it’s still a sad ending, but, like the man said, at least she gets to live. Then there’s option 2: sneak in, wait until Radames shows up, then go to him RIGHT AWAY and show him how she snuck in and how they can both sneak out, run off to Monaco (don’t take Napata Drive – it’s a little backed up today), and live – I repeat, LIVE! – happily ever after.
No. She waits until the friggin’ tomb has been sealed shut with that humungous rock and only then does she pipe up. Rather than try to save some oxygen and prolong their last moments together, they use up what little breathable air they have left by singing what is arguably the most beautiful death scene in all of opera. The opera comes to its tragic conclusion with Amneris singing a song she co-wrote with Ramfis praying for peace as the two lovers suffocate in each others arms.
Although the opera ends here, a recently discovered manuscript by the librettist offers us some clues as to what a sequel might have looked like:
Amonasro defeats the Egyptians and then goes back to Ethiopia. Rather than die on the throne like all the kings before him, he turns over the family country to his first son-in-law – Mildred’s husband – and moves to Florida where he ended his days after suffering a stroke16.
The king of Egypt gets caught up in some sort of pyramid scheme, loses his entire fortune, and spends his final years living on cat food and dying in the Nile.
Amneris and Ramfis leave the priest[ess]hood and team up to pursue their common passion for music theatre, writing such hit musicals as “How to Succeed in Memphis Without Really Trying”, “Annubis Get your Gong”, and “A Horace Line”.
Copyright © 2011,2017 Nick Seidenman, All Rights Reserved.