07 Mar 2016

The Music of Aida

Verdi’s orchestra is a fairly typical one of the time:  3 Flutes (one doubling Piccolo); 2 oboes; 1 English Horn;  2 clarinets;  1 Bass Clarinet;  2 Bassoons;  4 horns;  2 trumpets;  3 trombones;  bass trombone;  timpani;  triangle;  bass drum;  cymbals;  tam-tam;  harp and strings.   On-stage he asks for 6 “Egyptian Trumpets,” a military band and a harp.  From under the stage he wants 4 trumpets, 4 trombones and a bass drum.

Footnote here on the “Egyptian Trumpets”!  (Except, as usual, we don’t do Footnotes!)  Verdi wanted them for the Ceremonial March in the “Triumphal Scene”; they had to be long and straight (not at all like the usual trumpet); 3 had to be in the key of Ab, and 3 in B. Ricordi ordered them from a Milan instrument maker but, after “a great trumpet concert in my studio,” it became clear that some of the notes Verdi had written were impossible without a slight change of design and a sleight of hand to disguise the valve which would allow access to those notes. Verdi just wanted to show “what the trumpets were like in ancient times.”  And he obviously wanted that march tune to be heard from the stage. Ricordi’s Production Book, based on the first La Scala production, and sent to other theatres who secured the performance rights, specifies that the 3 Ab trumpeters lead in the first group of soldiers;  the second group are preceded by the B major lot. Ricordi is surely optimistic when he writes “The six trumpeters must be chosen from among the best players, and they must learn to play the long ancient trumpet, according to the established model, well in advance.” It’s not clear, but not unreasonable to suppose that, having had these trumpets  created, Ricordi would include their rental to theatres wanting to produce Verdi’s latest success.

The Cairo performances began with an orchestral prelude.    In December 1871, Verdi sent Ricordi an overture to be considered for the La Scala première, scheduled for February 8, 1872. It’s not an awful piece:  nothing Verdi wrote at this point in his career was awful (though see below for my discussion of the entrance of Radamès in Act 3!).  But Verdi was right to jettison it after hearing it in rehearsal:  it’s too elaborate a composition to introduce the simplicity of the opening conversation between Ramfis and Radamès.  He went back to the orchestral prelude.

Violins are divided.  In a traditional orchestra, violins are separated into Firsts and Seconds.     What Verdi does here is divide the First Violins into 2 groups, and the Seconds into 2 other groups.  “Aha!” shouts the Wagnerian: “Divided violins = Lohengrin = Verdi stole from the Meister.”  Yes, Verdi did sneak in to the first Italian production of Lohengrin at Bologna in November 1871, and noted his reactions in the libretto published for that performance.  Which make for interesting reading – Verdi’s comments, not the libretto!  But divided strings were not new to Verdi.  Listen to the Preludes to the first and third acts of La Traviata, composed some two decades earlier, where the violins are divided.

A broken melody (Wagnerians would call it a motiv) from half the 1st Violins rises and falls and is joined by the rest of the 1st violins. It will represent Aida’s love – for her country, for her father, her family and for Radamès; her conflicting emotions are perfectly captured in its uncertain tonality. Cellos quietly introduce a descending figure which will become associated with Ramfis and his priests.  Overlapping repetitions lead to a conflict between the two themes, but Aida’s theme returns before the Prelude  ends with the 1st Violins, still divided, rising into high silence.

The curtain rises to more divided strings – cellos, this time, divided into 3 groups.    And Verdi says “If there are 10 cellos, then 3 Firsts, 3 Seconds and 4 Thirds.” Unexpectedly, because mid-nineteenth-century Italian operas always began with a chorus, we are in the middle of a conversation between Ramfis, the High Priest, and Radamès, the probable commander of the Egyptian army.  The Ethiopians are about to invade; Isis has just named the Egyptian Commander, and Ramfis exits to tell the King the name of that Commander.  Cellos rise into high silence.

Radamès hopes, to brass fanfares, that he will be chosen.  If only, with support from the strings, that he might tell Aida he has fought and conquered for her sake.  Two solo First Violins, muted, sustain a high F for two bars, and the rapturous “Celeste Aida” begins.  Verdi had read, in the highly-regarded Dictionnaire universelle de musique, that a sophisticated flute had been developed in ancient Egypt; he duly visited the instrument on display at the Archaeological Museum in Florence and saw it was basically a shepherd’s pipe.  But the flute’s sonic possibilities piqued his interest, and I’ll point them out as they occur. In this aria the flute, hovering around its lowest notes, mirrors the tenor’s melody.  Early tenors objected to singing such a lyrical aria so soon after they’d come on stage, especially since it asked at the end for a high Bb to be sung very softly and dying away.  Verdi was outraged in March 1875 when he heard that the tenor in a production in Rome cut the aria. But others did too.  In January 1875 he suggested a not-very-satisfactory solution (sing the high Bb, but come down the octave to repeat the text).  Toscanini uses this ending in his recording. Today we expect to hear Verdi’s high note, but not, perhaps, his “very soft” request.

A sinuous figure, trailing triplets, introduces Amneris, who notes the happiness of Radamès.  He speaks of the possibility of military glory. To sensuous violins Amneris wonders if, perhaps, he might not have more heartfelt hopes or desires at home.  Violins initiate a needling figure (and don’t ignore the cellos!) which manages to illustrate the suspicions both of them feel:  “What if she knows?/What if I know?”   Aida’s theme brings her on stage, and Amneris immediately notices the reaction of Radamès.  More suspicions.  String chords accompany Amneris’s triplets as she welcomes Aida as a “sister.” “You’re weeping?” – tears in the orchestra – “The news of war makes me fearful.” “Perhaps there’s something more serious?” hints Amneris, and the suspicions return.  With a glorious melody (in the major key) Aida admits to herself that her tears are more for her unfortunate love for Radamès than they are for her country and her family.

The trio seems to break off as brass fanfares introduce the King and Ramfis together with Priests, Ministers and assorted military officers.  A messenger is announced who brings news that the Ethiopians have invaded; they are led by a fierce warrior, Amonasro:  their king; also, we learn in an aside, Aida’s father.  The men call for war.  The King reveals that Radamès has been chosen as Commander by Isis; in the Temple of Vulcan he will be invested with the sacred armor, and he launches  a battle hymn in which everyone joins.   A brief middle section allows for Aida to express her conflicting emotions.   Reprise of the Big Tune, Amneris prays that Radamès return victorious, and the full orchestra plays everyone off the stage.    I should tell you that Verdi thought this march, as well as the one at the end of Act 2, had not a few echoes of La Marseillaise – the French National Anthem.

Alone on stage, Aida is horrified at the words – Ritorna vincitor! – she has just uttered, and in this superb Recitative and Aria she tries to resolve the conflict she is feeling.  But she can’t.  She prays to the gods to take pity on her hopeless suffering, and leaves.  Again, cellos rise into high silence.

We move into the Temple of Vulcan. Verdi had enquired whether there was any evidence of the existence of an Egyptian sacred dance and was told it “was performed…to a slow and solemn rhythm.    The music…was probably a kind of plainsong…The instruments that accompanied these dances were twenty-four stringed harps, double flutes, trumpets, timpani, and smaller drums.”  Verdi here is satisfied with just one harp to accompany the off-stage chant of the High Priestess and her assistants.  The melody of the chant sounds suitably “Egyptian,” though it is all Verdi’s invention. On-stage, Ramfis and his Priests begin a litany calling on the gods. Now begins the Sacred Dance of the Priestesses, and it is here that the flute (three of them, actually) come into their own.

While ballet was a requirement for grand operas composed for Paris, the Italians tended to keep opera and dance separate.  Verdi’s operas written for Paris (Jérusalem, 1847;  Les vêpres siciliennes, 1855;  the revised Macbeth, 1865; the recent Don Carlos, 1867; while as late as 1894 he would add dance to the French production of Otello) all had ballet sequences, though he did not expect them to be retained when the operas were later produced in Italy. But here is Verdi introducing not just one ballet sequence, but three, into what is a very traditional Italian opera! Amilcare Ponchielli seems to have been the only other Italian composer to combine dance and opera:  the famous “Dance of the Hours” in La Gioconda, first produced in 1876.

The dance over, Ramfis – “now an epitome of all the priests, prophets and hermits who have peopled Verdi’s operas to date” (to quote the wonderful Julian Budden) – invests Radamès with the sacred sword, and begins an Invocation to the gods to the accompaniment of three very solemn trombones.   The hymn is taken up by Radamès and the Priests;  the Priestesses, off-stage, add their chant and the “Gran Scena dell Consacrazione e Finale Primo” ends with a great tutti cry to “Immenso Fthà!”

Harp chords introduce us to a room in Amneris’s living quarters, where she is being prepared for the coming Triumph by her ladies. They sing of the glorious conqueror (note the presence of Amneris’s triplets in their melody!) whom they would shower with flowers; of the defeated invaders who vanished like a mist. Between the verses Amneris, in a glorious descending phrase (which balances the rising one of her attendants) sings of her love, and in that one phrase Verdi shows us the real woman, not the jealous, hypocritical slave-owner we had met in the opening scene.

Another dance: “Little Moorish Slaves” this time; and their music sounds typically nineteenth-century “exotic”:  piccolo,  cymbals and triangle, with a drone-like bassoon in the middle section.  The ladies resume their praise of the victor, Amneris sings again of her love.  Aida enters carrying Amneris’s crown;  the attendants are dismissed and the stage is set for one of those female duets which were a regular feature of Italian opera – think Norma/Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, or Maria/Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda.  Amneris is all sweetness and suavity, though the timpani taps are ominous, and there is probably no more hypocritical a turn in all opera than the one she sings to the words “Be happy.”   “How can I be happy, not knowing what may have happened to my father and brothers!”   “I understand,” and those pulsing string chords we heard in the first scene return, punctuated this time by the ominous timpani taps.  Amneris’s mention that the god of love might help her heal prompts Aida to sing, aside, and to her own theme, of the joy and torment, the rapture and anxiety, of her own love.  A new melody from the orchestra begins to weave its way downwards before Amneris asks her slave to confide any new fears she might have – perhaps an Egyptian soldier?  After all, not everyone suffered the Commander’s fate – yes, Radamès was killed, and the gods have avenged you.  They, thunders Aida, have always thwarted me.   Such blasphemy shatters the harmonic stability we’d enjoyed till now, but Amneris, about to find out the truth of Aida’s love, overrides it to tell her slave she’d lied:  Radamès lives!   A huge orchestral chord personifies Aida’s relief.  But it’s contradicted by Amneris’s response: “I, Pharaoh’s daughter, am your rival!” The text is triumphant, but the music is not so sure.  Aida, driven almost to despair, is about to reveal that she too is of royal blood, but remembers her situation and begs forgiveness with a melody in the minor key, which blossoms into major when she speaks of her “immense amor.”  Amneris’s triplets return in all their glory as she exults in the power she now holds over her slave.   From off-stage we hear a fanfare and the opening phrase of the Big Tune from the first scene:  the Triumph is about to begin.  Julian Budden gives us Verdi’s original ideas for the ending of this astonishing duet.  Thank goodness he reconsidered and recomposed their final words!  Amneris leaves on a high Ab, the off-stage chorus sings their last phrase and there it should end.  But Aida, as she did at the end of the first scene of Act 1, begs the gods for pity. This time no cellos rise into silence.

This “Gran Finale secondo” (end of Utah Opera’s Act 1) is probably the most famous scene in all of opera; for all, I might add, the wrong reasons!  I don’t want to sound snobbish, but…  Many years ago I was on the Music Staff of the Cincinnati Opera which had begun its illustrious history with performances at the local Zoo.  When  Aïda was performed there, it was usual to include various of their animals in the triumphal procession, a tradition which continued after they had moved into the magnificent Music Hall.  I don’t need to tell you of the various “accidents” which occurred either on-stage, or in the wings, during these performances.  The opera was produced one summer I was there and the animals were reduced to one elephant who took centre-stage with his trainer and did an elephant-curtsey.  Great delight of the audience!!  I don’t want to sound snobbish, but this scene is not about animals!

The off-stage banda alternates with an expectant orchestra which leads to the Egyptians singing what we might consider their National Anthem (despite, or because of, Verdi thinking it had echoes of the French La Marseillaise!) The women sing, as did Amneris’s attendants, of weaving laurel crowns for their soldiers, and ask for celebratory dances.    The Priests, with their delayed entries, insist that the gods should be thanked for this victory.

Now we hear three of those Egyptian trumpets leading in the first of the Egyptian troops. Thanks to Hans Busch’s “Verdi’s Aida” we have the Production Book, based on the La Scala première, which Ricordi sent to theatres planning a production.  I’m not sure that his suggested staging can work.  But the first squadron marches in with the trumpets in Ab;  the second lot appear to presumably more excited reaction from the citizens, since these trumpets are now pitched higher (and brighter) in B major.

Suddenly there is a ballet!  Ricordi’s Production Book doesn’t explain its dramatic raison d’être, just that it happens.  “…the corps de ballet comes onstage…the ballet supers carry idols, trophies, etc., etc., on their shoulders.  The Moorish slaves of Amneris’s entourage also join the corps de ballet to begin the dance, after which the ballerinas withdraw to upstage left… This dance must also be meaningful… around the idols captured from the enemy…”  The reason for this balletic interlude is not at all clear, though no-one would deny the quality of the music;  in fact Verdi, for the Paris production in 1880, expanded his original design and insisted the new version be incorporated in future editions of the score.

As if to remind us why we’re here, there is a musical reprise of the opening music, though the text now welcomes the conquering hero!  The orchestra brings back the descending line of the Priests and everyone combines to a huge silent bar. The music resumes with a variation of something heard earlier which builds to a grand climax.

The King, to appropriate fanfares, welcomes the savior of his country, and orders him to accept the triumphal wreath from his daughter. Which he does. Violins replay the music which accompanied Amneris’s first words.  The King promises to grant whatever Radamès wishes; he asks that the Egyptian prisoners be brought forward.   Aida recognizes her father, but he begs her not to betray his real identity.  Tersely he admits he fought for his King and country but they were defeated.   But if love for one’s country, with a rising accented phrase, be a crime, he’s ready to die.  But, and here begins an amazing musical paragraph, you, Powerful King, look on these prisoners:  today you were lucky, but tomorrow maybe not so and may you never suffer a defeat such as ours.  Of course the Priests object and a huge musical paragraph begins, which allows everyone to express their own reaction.

Radamès now insists on the King’s promise and asks freedom for the Ethiopian prisoners.  Ramfis suggests they keep Aida and her father.  The King agrees, and then gives to Radamès the hand of his daughter Amneris.  Cue for what seems a reprise. But it isn’t, because Amonasro interrupts it, quietly encouraging his daughter not to despair.  Now comes the real reprise.  3 previously-heard melodies – the opening chorus;  the Priests’ hymn and the lament of Aida and Radamès are superimposed on each other to magnificent effect.  It’s interesting to read that the Chorus for the first production at La Scala in 1872 numbered 107 in three groups:  People – 65; Prisoners and Slaves – 18; and Priests – 24.

Act 2 takes place on the banks of the Nile, outside the Temple of Isis. Moonlight.  Strings shimmer.   Priests are heard chanting in the Temple, answered by the voice of the High Priestess. Verdi originally composed a more elaborate 4-part chorus “worked out in the style of Palestrina…I had some scruples about imposing Palestrina on the harmony of Egyptian music”; the simpler, and more evocative, version was sent to Ricordi in August, 1871. A boat approaches: Ramfis is bringing Amneris to spend the eve of her wedding in prayer. Aida’s music is heard.  Radamès needs to speak to her, but if it’s to bid her farewell then she will drown herself in the Nile, which, if the orchestra tells us true, is flowing fast and deep. The romanza which follows was also revised:  now, as we will hear, it is “somewhat refined and delicate.” A plaintive oboe melody is heard as she laments that she’ll never see her country again. She recalls its blue skies, its gentle breezes and refreshing valleys;  lusciously scored – listen for the flutes and, in the second verse, the triplets of the solo strings.

The orchestral postlude is interrupted by the appearance of Amonasro. He knows she awaits Radamès; there is, he suggests, a way by which she can win his hand and return to rule in Ethiopia. He reminds her of the country’s beauty – as if she needed reminding! – but also that the Egyptians ravaged the land.  The Ethiopians are ready to fight and are confident of victory; all they need to know is where the Egyptians plan to invade.  Father and daughter have traded lyrical lines, but now the music changes as Amonasro hints at what Aida must do. Aida’s refusal prompts a furious outburst from her father, calling on the Egyptian forces to destroy his country; the ghost of her mother rises to curse her; he disowns her and, rising to a high Gb, tells her she is indeed a slave of the Pharaohs.  Completely broken in spirit, Aida begs forgiveness to an unsteady monotone from the violins.    And then, while magically transforming that rhythmic monotone, comes one of Verdi’s great soaring baritone lines; Aida takes it to its climax, lamenting the heavy cost her country demands of her.  Simply stunning!

From the sublime to the ridiculous. And may I tell you, gentle reader, how much it cost me to write those words?  Aida’s cost is mere pennies compared to mine!  You see, Verdi – even early Verdi; finding-his-way Verdi; pausing-to-take-stock-of-his-progress-and-perhaps-taking-a-step-backwards Verdi – is, for me, one of the two greatest composers of opera.  In composing Aida he pours everything he has learned from some thirty years of writing for opera houses in Italy, France, England and even Russia. The result is an amalgam of the Grandest, as well as the shortest, of French Grand Operas; the “Bel-est” of Bel Canto, if by that term we mean that the emotional content of the text is concentrated in the vocal melody; and his recently-found imaginative scoring: the result of his experience with technically-better players in the Opéra orchestra and his awareness of German composers’ use of the orchestra.   I would have thought that, by 1870, Verdi had transcended his early tendency towards triteness.  It saddens me that at this moment in this opera he suffers a relapse!

In bounces Radamès, sounding like a fraternity jock on a winning football evening.  Verdi may request the tenor sing ecstatically of his joy at seeing his love again, but the melody he sings is, simply, bad by Verdi’s 1870’s standards.  Not even Aida’s frigid monotone responses can dampen his enthusiasm! How, in choosing her as his wife, could he think he could go against the King’s decision (and the wishes of the people) that he should marry Amneris, not to mention the reaction of the Priests, and that of the ever-jealous Princess.  He believes (trumpets accompanying with a fanfare-y figure) that if he defeats Ethiopia again the King will grant him his wish to marry Aida.  Orchestral memories of Amneris merely strengthen his resolve.  To a shuddery violin figure Aida suggests, perhaps, another solution.  Escape to Ethiopia.    The oboe solo which accompanies her request to leave is not particularly inviting, but it becomes more attractive when she’s joined by the three flutes;  even more so when she incorporates into her line the triplets of that oboe.  Ethiopia has never sounded so seductively beautiful!  Nervous strings wonder if Radamès could, or would, forget the country where he was born; where he rose to military glory; and where he fell in love with her.  She assures him that her country will accept him and that they will worship the same gods in the same temples.  He is not convinced, and this time it is Aida whose voice rises into silence.

Desperate for her love, Radamès launches into a cabaletta – another throwback to an earlier traditional faster section of an aria or duet – which is only made worse by the two of them joining in a repetition of the fraternity-jock melody.  Which is brought to a halt by Aida asking her lover, point-blank, the route the Egyptians will take to invade Ethiopia.  Amonasro pounces on the revelation and confusion reigns for a while. Radamès is horrified to learn that the woman he loves is the daughter of his enemy’s king, and that he has revealed a state secret:  he is dishonored.  Both Aida and her father try to convince him that he is guiltless and that he should escape with them.

Suddenly Amneris appears from the Temple and denounces Radamès as a traitor. We might wonder why the furiously raging outburst of Amonasro, with its huge orchestral accompaniment, didn’t disturb those in the Temple, but this is opera, where disbelief is more willfully suspended than in Shakespeare! Amonasro attempts to stab Amneris, but is stopped by Radamès, who then encourages them to escape.   He surrenders to Ramfis.

In a room in the Palace, one doorway opens to the cell where Radamès is held; the other leads down to the room where the trial will take place. Winds descend into silence. Trembling flutes accompany Amneris’s theme from the opening scene which now acquires staggered entrances and might develop into a sort of fugato thing, except that she interrupts.  It is one thing that her rival has escaped, but it is a far more solemn thing that Radamès awaits trial as a traitor. Which he is not.  Even though he did reveal Egyptian war plans.  And he was planning to flee with her to Ethiopia! How conflicted (to her triplet motion) is Amneris’s love for Radamès!  Somehow she must try to save him.  She summons guards to bring him into her presence.

A very formal duet begins, accompanied by clarinet triplets. If he will offer a defense, she sings, she will plead his case. He refuses because he has no wish to live.  In a wonderful side-step to a major tonality, Amneris begs him to live. Amneris returns to her original melody, but that is shattered when she admits that Aida managed to escape at the end of the previous Act.  Ecstatic response from Radamès, who is impervious to Amneris’s passionate pleadings that he should live.  Radamès leaves with his guards and Amneris is distraught.

The descending theme of the Priests is heard on muted basses as Amneris ponders her role in his destruction.  The procession across the stage of the priests – “those white-robed phantoms…those inexorable ministers of death” – terrifies her, because she was the one responsible for his arrest.

From under the stage we hear the Priests, in Verdi’s version of ancient Egyptian liturgical chant, pray to the gods, accompanied by the 4 trumpets, 4 trombones and a bass drum.  Amneris pleads to the gods to spare this innocent man whom she loves.  It’s interesting that her initial phrase echoes that descending line of the Priests.  The orchestra thunders out that theme.  Three times the name of Radmès is called. Then the accusations.  He is charged with revealing state secrets.  His silence is evidence of his guilt.  He deserted his command.  Silence.  He betrayed his country, his king, his own honor.  Silence.   Amneris is by now almost frantic. The sentence is delivered:  as a traitor he will be buried alive under the Temple of Vulcan.  Amneris explodes with frustration and condemns the Priests for needing more human sacrifice in their attempts to serve the gods.  As they return across the stage, she denounces the “blood-thirsty animals,” curses them for condemning an innocent man to death, and calls down the vengeance of the gods on their heads.

An extraordinary scene – a unique one!  Think of any other opera where a single character is, apart from a relatively short duet, alone on stage for some fifteen minutes, reacting to something she is overhearing and over which she now, since Radamès has rejected her plea-bargain suggestion, has no control! What a range of emotions she must convey!  Guilt for having had the man she loves arrested;  jealousy that he would face death for the woman (her slave) he loves;  horror that he will be condemned to death;  conflict in knowing that he betrayed his country, yet understanding, emotionally, that he did it because he loved another woman.  What a gift Verdi gave to a singer with the dramatic ability to convey to us these conflicting emotions!  And how easy it is for such a singing-actor to steal the opera from the titular heroine!  Listen to, or watch on youtube, those two great Italian mezzo-sopranos Giulietta Simionata and Fiorenza Cossotto (whom I saw eons ago in a production at Covent Garden)!

The set of the final scene wracked the brains of the original scene-designers.  The libretto asks for a divided set:  the upper level shows the interior of the Temple of Vulcan, brilliant with gold and light; the lower level is the “gloomy” vault “illuminated by a grey-green light.”  Not much of a challenge today, but at a time when scene-changes happened in full view of the audience, and when there were no lighting black-outs to facilitate such quick changes, such a change of scene was a challenge. It was helped, of course, by the design of the previous scene, which would have taken place downstage in front of a painted backdrop representing the required Hall in the Palace. But Ricordi’s Production Book does explain in the great detail what has to happen to ensure the change is as smooth as possible.    Productions I have seen, and been involved with, ignore a very important direction in that Production Book.  At the start of the scene, Radamès is on the stairs which connect both levels while priests are sealing the entrance to his tomb. When done, they join their brother-priests kneeling around the statue of Vulcan.

This makes sense of Radamès’s first line:  “The fatal stone has been set above me.”  Perhaps it might have been around 1976, when I listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera.   The tenor’s opening lines, “La fatal pietra sovra me si chiusa…Ecco la tomba mia” transfixed me with the beauty with which they were sung. It was Placido Domingo, and I have never forgotten that sound!

Radamès hopes that Aida will be happy and never know his fate.  Flute and oboe sigh. That sign becomes  a ghost…a vision…no, it’s Aida! To a solemn dirge in D minor (Mozart’s key of emotional tragedy – as in, for example, Don Giovanni or his Piano Concerto #20), Aida tells her lover that she knew he’d be sentenced to death and crept into this vault so she could die with him.  And now begins a love duet unsurpassed by any other composer in its lyrical beauty.  Radamès cannot believe that someone so young, so beautiful would want to die with him.  Ecstatically Aida sees the angel of death approaching who will lead them both to everlasting happiness.  In vain Radamès tries to open the grave, and, with a magical octave drop, Aida tells him that life is over for them.  Which leads to their ecstatic farewell to life. What magic is in the strings! 1st Violins are divided and directed to play harmonics (really high!); so are the cellos. When Radamès takes over the melody, muted 2nd Violins add tremolos to plucked basses.    As Aida dies, the orchestra thins out to tremolo strings.

Meanwhile voices of the Priests and Priestesses are heard chanting to the gods on the upper level – according to the Production Book, the Priestesses should dance. Amneris enters, “a large black veil covers her from head to feet,”  to pray to the gods that the man she loves will find peace. Accompanied by off-stage voices praying to Fthà, hers is the last voice we hear. Violins ascend into silence!