Thoughts on Verdi’s Aida: Recalling Notes from Ravenna
Since classes have finished up for the year and summer “break” is now upon us (“break” is in quotes because research and lab work never stops haha), I thought I’d take the time to write a somewhat introductory and reminiscent post about Verdi’s Aida, especially as we are now closely approaching the beginning of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert performances of the full opera, conducted by Maestro Muti. I figured I would go back to all of the notes I took throughout Maestro Muti’s Italian Opera Academy in Ravenna two years ago and point out some highlights. It’s nice to revisit the score and follow along with a multitude of different recordings—although nothing beats hearing a live performance! Plus it’s also nice to go back and see all that I wrote down those two summers ago, as there are some quite hilarious moments that I, thankfully, made sure to note! A list of five of my favorite notes are below (the score shown in the pictures is Ricordi’s for pianoforte and singer):
- Varied dynamic markings (quiet!): the stereotype that Italian opera, including those of Verdi’s is somehow less refined or sophisticated than those of their German/Austro-Hungarian counterparts is simply not true! Towards the end of Radames’ famous Act I aria, you can see multiple pianissississimi (pppp) and pianississimi (ppp), as well as the morendo and leggeremente markings! It’s clear that Verdi wanted to achieve a very delicate sound here, and not with the loud, heroic endings that tenors often sing here. Verdi himself even suggested that if this quiet, high B-flat ending (not shown in the pic) was too hard to achieve, that one could add three B-flats at an octave lower…not many heed this advice, but you still can find examples of this practice, including the NBC recording of Toscanini’s!
- “Don’t sound heavy…like potatoes…”: This quote might need some more context, but this comment comes in at the beginning of Amneris’ entrance in Act I. Maestro Muti made this comment in response to the orchestra when they played the beginning of this passage, as it sounded a bit too “heavy”—too much weight on the two chords as well as a kind of encumbered playing of the triplet phrases. So, to help achieve a different sound, the advice, “Don’t sound heavy, like holding 2 bags of potatoes…must be like a free sky!” was given by Maestro Muti—this definitely is way more descriptive than “play lighter” haha, and it shows how Maestro Muti conveys the interpretative ideas in an understandable, but not trite, fashion. If only more conductors could do this, then I think it would help make the art form a lot more accessible to the masses 🙂
- Aida and the Nile: Aida is a troubled, tormented character—she has to pick between the love for her father/homeland and the love for Radames, the commander who is in charge of basically killing her people and family. It’s a weird storyline that probably wouldn’t ever make sense in real life, but then again, that’s opera for you! Anyways, one of the key things in the opera that characterizes Aida is the Nile River. Throughout the opera, there are a number of references to the Nile, but it’s a concept that’s closely associated with Aida (which probably speaks to the dark, stormy turbulence in her life lol). Anyways, you can regularly see these “Nile” ascending/descending chromatic figurations throughout the opera, especially when Aida sings. And as pointed out by Maestro Muti, the waves of the Nile always accompanies Aida, speaking to her constant conflict/torment.
- Misuses of “rallentando and “ritardando”…too much exaggeration!: It’s no secret, but one of the main themes of Maestro Muti’s academy is to cut back against the gross exaggerations that often plague the performances of Verdi’s operas. And a lot of these exaggerations come in the form of rallentandi/ritardandi, where singers purposefully slow down the tempo in a gradual manner, for the sake of creating some sort of big, dramatic effect. As you can see in the picture below, when Ramfis begins to sing in Act III, there is an expressive marking, “con calma” (“calmly”), but that doesn’t mean to just infuse a rallentando or ritardando: “con calma” is not equivalent to a “grande ritardando” and being slow does not necessarily mean “rallentando”. It’s a very nuanced and subtle point, but I think it does help to make the distinction between a serious interpretation vs. a melodramatic interpretation (if I’m using that term correctly haha).
- “Verdi didn’t like the tenor.”: As previously mentioned, Radames (the tenor) is a pretty deranged character: he basically expects Aida to love him after he goes and kills her family and people from her homeland. It’s not the first time that the tenor isn’t the best (nor brightest) character in Verdi’s operas (just to list two simple examples: the Duke in Rigoletto and Alfredo in La Traviata). Plus, when you compound that with the fact that tenors are the singers who most often commit the aforementioned “exaggerations” in Italian opera (which is something that Verdi was very much against), then you can kinda understand why he might not necessarily appreciate tenors as much as, perhaps, the public does haha. Anyways, Maestro Muti made sure to mention this (and of course, this might also extend to his own preferences haha)—the picture below shows that one of the notes for Radames, towards the end of Act III, should definitely not be held for “too long”…
Anyways, I could speak about so much more, but I should probably get back to reviewing a manuscript that we’re planning on submitting to a very nice journal (woot!). I’ll update the blog with more from the Aida rehearsal and concert performances in the days to come. (Plus, Yo-Yo Ma is in town for his Bach project, so that should be exciting as well!)
PS: Also…a shameless plug for my other blog (which I’m also doing for my NSF fellowship requirement)—I finally got a chance to start it up, so if you’re interested in the whole grad school/academia/research/science and engineering experience, you can take a look at what I’m writing about here: “The (Nano)Fab Life“. You can also follow on Twitter @nanofablife!