Are there two operas with less in common than Mozart's Così fan tutte and Verdi's Aida?
One is a sexy romp full of double-entendres and witty banter, with a serious subtext so hidden between the lines that some music-lovers never detect it.
The other is a historical robes-and-sandals epic with not even a fleeting trace of humor. Them-there Egyptian folks and Ethiopian folks are a grim bunch of codgers...
One is the emblem of Viennese Classicism; the other is the apotheosis of Italian lyricism.
How odd that they're bound together by a child's playground song!
There's a certain playground anthem that most of us sang back in the day. The basic tune consists of this sequence of pitches: sol-mi, sol-mi, sol-sol-mi-la-sol-mi. The most common words are:
It turns out that this ditty has a long and involved history. Musicologists have identified versions of it from every culture on earth. Americans sing a variety of words to it, ranging from the inevitable "Nanny-nanny boo-boo" to more mean-spirited expressions like "Bobby is a loser".
But in France, children sing "Nananananère, pouette pouette camembert!" Mexican children know it as "Lero lero candilero". A little research will reveal similar little masterpieces from Russia, Sweden... you name it.
As far back in history as music goes.
Impressed? I am! Apparently, pre-adolescent human beings are hard-wired to produce this tune when at play.
What's interesting is how it can turn up in works by Classical composers.
Last year, during Virginia Opera's run of Così performances, I posted an essay on this blog noting the use of the tune in the opening trio of Act I. Whether deliberate or intuitive, Mozart's choice of the "It's raining, it's pouring" motive was spot-on in suggesting the immature, juvenile attitude towards love held by soldier-boys Ferrando and Guglielmo.
As for Aida, the tune appears as the concluding theme in her great soliloquy "Ritorna vincitor" in Act I, scene i. No one has ever equaled Giuseppe Verdi in the ability to craft mesmerizing musical streams of consciousness as his characters process kaleidoscopic emotions and psychological states while we in the audience are held rapt in front of the naked truth of human emotion. Aida is famously conflicted about the coming battle between her Egyptian captors and her Ethiopian kinsmen. Desperately in love with Radames, she cannot wish for his military success; yet if her father Amonasro is the victor, it will be at the cost of her lover's life. All possible outcomes to this war will cause her anguish and grief.
Confronted with a problem of such complexity and confusion that she is unable to resolve it herself, Aida ends her musings by doing what all religious folk are taught to do in similar circumstances: she prays. "Gods, have pity; have pity on my suffering."
Now, Verdi could have set these words in any of a number of ways. After all, Aida is an aristocrat; she is royalty; the Princess of her homeland. She might have invoked her gods in a demanding tone. She might have let years of repressed anger erupt in an angry torrent.
Instead, astonishingly, breath-takingly, we get the Universal Refrain of Childhood:
Just as many in the Judeo-Christian tradition often speak of "God the Father", Aida's prayer motive reveals that she finds herself in a child-like state of helplessness. The haughty princess has been humbled by captivity, shame and now conflicted loyalties; it has made her a child again. Ferrando and Guglielmo were caught being child-ish; Aida is child-like.
And it's the music that gives us this perception of her, not the words.