Vol. 22 No. 7 · 30 March 2000

The Elton John and Tim Rice reworking of Aida

Jerry Fodor

2920 words

How I got into this. John Sturrock called from the LRB. He knows that I like opera a lot, and that I now and then get tired of writing papers about the mind/body problem for philosophy journals. ‘Would I like to report on the new pop version of Aida? (Elton John, Tim Rice and, rumour has it, a transparent swimming-pool.)’ I pretend to have heard of Elton John and Tim Rice. Sturrock sounds amused, possibly at my expense. ‘Sure, what have I got to lose?’ I say.

That is sheer bravado. For one thing, though I’m passionately fond of seeing again Fred Astaire movies that I’ve seen a dozen times before – I’m prepared to make long trips to seedy nth-run cinemas in bad neighbourhoods if so required – I haven’t been to a musical play in maybe forty years. I know nonetheless (a priori, as philosophers say) that I do not like them. They are noisy, and banal, and manipulative, and vulgar, and the singing is amplified. I know this, as I say, prior to experience, and independent of it. Moreover, I am painfully easily embarrassed; and I believe that musicals are the kind of plays in which the actors encourage the audience to come up on the stage and join in the fun. I did not see Hair of course, but I’m certain that everybody in the stalls eventually had to take his (/her/my) clothes off.

‘Painfully easily embarrassed’, if anything, understates the case. I am pathologically easily embarrassed. I would rather be mugged than shout for help in a public place. (I suppose I’d be prepared to shout for help in the privacy of my own home, among consenting adults; but what good would that do?) Likewise, I almost never go to those trendy plays in small off-off-Broadway theatres where God knows what indignities may be visited on the audience in pursuit of its edification or entertainment. If I’m forced to go to one, I sit in the middle of a row in the middle of the house, where peripatetic actors can’t get at me. ‘What have I got to lose?’ My nerve, for starters.

I do know a little about opera, though only in an amateur and star-struck sort of way. Aida (I mean, Verdi’s one) was on at the Met earlier this season, with Deborah Voigt, who is fine in Wagner and Strauss, sounding a bit uncomfortable singing post-bel canto. (Amneris was marvellous, by the way; one of those visiting Russian mezzos who seem to be everywhere these days.) It occurs to me to write to Voigt asking whether she would like to come along to see this new version; her reaction would be worth hearing. Understand, I’ve never met the woman. Offering to take someone I don’t know to an event that she most likely does not wish to attend – especially someone who sings – is entirely out of character. Clearly, this business is getting on my nerves. Perhaps I have embarked on a voyage of self-discovery. In any case, Miss Voigt doesn’t reply.

Nor is my wife prepared to keep me company. ‘You will not enjoy this,’ she says, with the confidence of someone who is in a position to know. ‘And I do not wish to hear the things that you will say during the intermissions.’ I offer to behave myself; but she doubts my ability to do so. This reaction is unwarranted. My wife is holding a grudge, of which the history is as follows: we once went together to a Tennessee Williams revival (Orpheus Descending, I think) in which poor Vanessa Redgrave had to deliver, in a lush but uncertain approximation to a Southern accent, some such line as: ‘Evera time ah walk past the graveyahd, ah can heah all those dead people saying: “Live, honey, live!”’ All right; I got, audibly, the giggles. It could happen to anyone.

10 December 1999. Conversation with my daughter. She, at least, is not an academic. I’m encouraged to find that she does know who Elton John and Tim Rice are, and is prepared to brief me. She will come along; hold my hand; interpret. ‘In thy worst need to be thy guide.’ Daughters are wonderful. You can never have too many daughters.

13 December 1999. Tickets ordered. While I wait to speak to one of our sales representatives, all of whom are busy, and do not hang up because my call is important to them, the box office answering machine plays me a bit of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. OK so far. But a recorded message interrupts the Prokofiev to tell me that Aida is produced by the Disney Corporation, ‘which also brings me …’ followed by the names of several plays that I haven’t been to and am not tempted by. Not so good after all. In time a voice that isn’t recorded comes on at the other end. ‘Friday evening, February 25,’ this man says. ‘2000,’ he adds with solemnity. Also, 80 bucks. Each. Still, it’s less than the other Aida cost.

17 December 1999. Anthony calls from Seattle, where he makes absurd amounts of money doing to the soft parts of computers things I don’t understand. Anthony is my son. His preference in music is both ethnic and arcane. Yes, he has heard of Elton John, though he’s a little vague on Tim Rice. Something about Christ, wasn’t it? No, he certainly has none of Elton John’s recordings. Anthony speaks of Mr John in tones I have heard opera buffs use to refer to Die Fledermaus, ballet fans to The Nutcracker, and lovers of modern art to Andrew Wyeth. The subtext of his remarks is that the experience is unlikely to do me harm because I am not sufficiently with it to understand what I’ll be hearing. It seems to me that, like Deborah Voigt, at least two-thirds of my domestic support group isn’t rallying around.

25 February. Well, now that’s done, and I’m glad it’s over.

Afters. Aida is a fine opera; among Verdi’s best. But it isn’t one of those sacred objects with which one is forbidden to tamper. A perfect completeness is not the sort of virtue that operas generally strive for; the flawed masterpiece is the speciality of the house. On the other hand, if you want to revise an opera – or even just make fun of one – you have to know how it works. Messrs John and Rice don’t seem to know how Aida works; nor do they seem to care.

The opera is about how public affairs corrupt private affections. That is a recurrent theme of Verdi’s, of which Don Carlos is perhaps his most subtle and successful treatment. In contrast, his design for Aida can seem a little heavy-handed. For state occasions, there are big set pieces, self-consciously vulgar, with lots of brass and chorus. These alternate with much more lightly instrumented scenes among the principals, in which the romantic tragedy plays itself out. In effect, Aida aims to be a chamber opera embedded in an oratorio. Sometimes this works strikingly well. In Act 1, for example, Verdi dispenses with the traditional opening chorus in favour of a (murderous) tenor aria. This is rapidly followed by a trio for tenor, soprano and mezzo-soprano, then by a big ceremonial scene with all forces working hard, and then by Aida’s great scena, ‘Retorna vincetor!’ The technical innovation is, in its way, as radical as some of Wagner’s. And, since it all happens very fast, the cumulative effect of a good performance leaves you breathless.

For all of which, vulgarity is vulgar even if it’s self-conscious. Likewise, sentiment is sentimental, and Verdi is among the many 19th-century composers who cannot be trusted with a harp. Also, though it’s hardly Verdi’s fault, we’ve heard the Triumphal March many times too often. So the idea that someone might try a different line with Verdi’s material struck me as not entirely outrageous. At best, there’d be new wine in the old bottle. At worst, there’d be a commercial expertise that knows where the reflexes are and what it takes to set them off; unclean maybe, but maybe not unexciting. And I did want to see how they managed the swimming-pool.

It’s Verdi’s gamble to place at the centre of Aida a character without spontaneity. His eponymous heroine is a wimp. In a tight situation, she is disposed to sing ‘Ciel!’ or ‘Numi!’ and let things take their course. That is quite unlike the typical Verdi woman who, when displeased, does something about it. True, what she does is usually self-destructive: takes poison (Luisa Miller; Il Trovatore); marries the bass (Don Carlos); gives up the tenor for his family’s sake (La Traviata); gets herself stuffed in a sack and stabbed (Rigoletto); whatever. But she does something. To judge from the recording, even Callas couldn’t figure out how to cope with Aida’s being so wet.

Because she is moved only by the forces that impinge on her, Aida’s inaction makes their magnitude graphic for the audience; it illustrates the maxim of her life, which is that to be is to be overwhelmed. But the dramatic effect is oddly dissociated; the centre of the opera’s attention is in one place, the sources of its momentum are in another. In consequence, it’s the relatively minor characters who mostly determine the action and hold one’s interest. I can’t, off-hand, think of another Verdi opera in which that is so.

Aside from Aida, the captive slave-girl, Verdi’s cast includes: Radamès, the tenor. Radamès is, well, a tenor. Operatic tenors are, by profession, heroic, enthusiastic and not long on brains. Radamès’ function, when he’s onstage, is to be in love with Aida. When he’s offstage, it is to lead the Egyptian Army in a campaign against the Nubians. Since Aida is somehow the Princess of Nubia in deep incognito, plot complications ensue. Amneris, the mezzo. She is the daughter of the King of Egypt, in love with (of course) the tenor, to whom she is betrothed. Amneris is not a wimp; not by any means. While Radamès is abroad tenoring, Amneris keeps fit by sharpening her claws on Aida, who sings ‘Ciel!’ and the like in protest. There’s no contest, really. Amonasro, the baritone. He is the King of the Nubians, Aida’s father. His offstage job is to lead the Nubian forces against the Egyptians, whom, you remember, Radamès is conversely leading against the Nubians. In the course of the action Amonasro, who is incognito, like Aida, is likewise captured; it appears this runs in the family. Since Radamès’ love for Aida is reciprocated, the situation implies, for the soprano, a serious conflict of interest.

The general rule in opera is that the tenor and the baritone love the soprano, and the soprano and the mezzo love the tenor. This four-way pattern is required for musical balance, but it is inherently less effective than the traditional dramatic triangle, and it often leaves the baritone with not much to do but be rejected. Verdi and Wagner both hit on the same satisfying way to manage this structural problem. The baritone’s passion for the soprano is sublimated as a father’s love for his daughter. (There are practically no mothers in opera.) This deepens the four-way tension and allows the familial relation to be explored in contrast with the romantic one. In the triangular design, the heroine is pulled in different directions, but the opposed forces are of much the same kind; she’s caught between two terms of a mere rivalry. In the Verdi-Wagner arrangement, the attractions in play differ in character as well as quantity, and the emotional complexity of the heroine’s situation is correspondingly increased. That leaves only the mezzo not catered for. In Aida, Verdi has a famously successful solution: the closing duet is a liebestod by the entombed lovers. Amneris, on the outside, sings an antiphonal prayer for pity and for peace. Really marvellous.

Nothing much remains of this in the musical. Amneris, arguably the most interesting character in Verdi’s line-up, becomes a comic role executed in imitation of Marilyn Monroe. Depressed on account of Radamès’ indifference, she compensates by an obsessive concern with her wardrobe, about which she sings a song. This song segues to an impromptu fashion show, in which Amneris and the ladies’ chorus wear large hats. Because we’re in Ancient Egypt, where the cat was revered, Amneris’ large hat has a black cat on top of it. The illuminated eyes of this cat flash on and off. They do; I’m only telling you what I saw.

Amonasro is hardly on view, but Radamès has acquired a wicked father called Zoser. He is, by profession, some sort of court functionary, but his avocation is gradually to poison the King. (‘Build another pyramid,’ he sings, in what may or may not be John/Rice’s one attempt at irony.) Zoser calculates that, with Pharaoh out of the way, Radamès will marry Amneris and thus succeed to the throne. I found this turn of the plot puzzling. Since, by all indications, marrying Amneris to Radamès is the Pharaoh’s pet project, the planned assassination appeared gratuitous.

So Amonasro has disappeared, Amneris has gone to camp, and Radamès is as useless as ever. (His suggestion to Aida that they sail off to an isle in the Nile where they can be happy together she rightly rejects as impractical.) With Verdi’s dramatic structure thus in shambles, the Aida character must now be radically reconstructed. John/ Rice can hardly afford to have everybody passive at the same time. So we get an entirely new sort of Aida; a politically correct Aida; an Aida with attitude. Fervently, if anachronistically, she disapproves of the Egyptian imperium. She makes the point (not widely appreciated in her time) that large nations ought not to colonise their smaller neighbours. She remarks with disfavour on the bellicosity of the male temperament, especially as manifested by warriors. And she undertakes (after some display of reluctance) to be a Moses to the Nubians, whom she will deliver from their Egyptian captivity. In those days, it appears, even a slave-girl could be liberated once she got her consciousness raised.

Here is Aida’s plan. She will sacrifice her love for Radamès, who will marry Amneris after all. (Everybody in the play wants Radamès to marry Amneris, except Radamès, who only wants to go sailing. I did rather sympathise.) Aida will escape with her father and they will, rather vaguely, go back to Nubia. Radamès, on account of his love for Aida, has had a change of heart; he now repents all his youthful colonising. He promises Aida that he will be very nice to the Nubians when he becomes king. Meanwhile, he donates to them all the household appliances that he has lying around his tent.

By this time, Verdi’s material has become invisible. Except for having kept the names, John/Rice might have started with William Tell. What, then, was the motive for their revisionism? What, to put it baldly, is the point of all this? Why, nothing; nothing at all. At the centre of the contrivance there is only the lack of an idea. So, the planned escape is foiled by an accident, and Aida and Radamès are duly condemned and entombed. (Note the contrast with the opera, where Aida chooses to die with Radamès; her sole spontaneous act in all of the drama.) But lest the asphyxiation of hero and heroine seem an unduly sombre note on which to conclude this otherwise upbeat evening, there’s a framing scene in the Egyptian room of a museum, which coyly suggests that reincarnation will reunite the lovers. Meanwhile, the ghost of Amneris sings that every story is a love story. In John/Rice’s ephemeral pop aesthetic, not even dying is allowed the dignity of being permanent.

As for the rest, the lyrics are forced, the dialogue is leaden, the music is loud and sometimes very loud, but not, to my ear, otherwise distinguishable. (It was played by an electric orchestra that made me hope a fuse would fail. Anthony was right: I am not with it.) This Aida so lacks a motivation that the stage seems eerily empty much of the time. Flats, drops, scrims, dancers and extras are called on to fill the void, but they all disappear in the central vacuity. The production looks at once shamelessly expensive and mingy. And there isn’t a swimming-pool.

What John/Rice have conjured up, for all the money they’ve spent and the talent they’ve wasted, is neither Egypt, nor Italy, nor Broadway, nor theatre. It’s television; and it tastes of processed cheese. I guess, however, that the audience liked it well enough. Perhaps it hadn’t expected to be moved, or amused, or delighted, or exalted, or whatever it is that music drama is supposed to do; only to be entertained till it was time to catch the subway back to Queens. Anyhow, they responded in a way that I’ve never seen before and couldn’t have imagined: with a perfunctory standing ovation.

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