Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Life immitating art...poorly

That video is of 'Possente, possente ftha' from the first act of Aida by Giuseppe Verdi. It takes place at the temple of Vulcan where the high priestess performs a ritual dance in order to prepare Radames, recently chosen by the god Isis to lead the Egyptian army, for battle against the Ethiopian invaders. It is one of my favourite bits of the opera and for an opera that is so markedly in the Italian style, this seems the most Egyptian. In all probability the Ancient Egypt of Aida is not remotely close to reality as it fulfils our more Western fantasies of military conquest and sexual exploit. That's all rather uninterestingly obvious but what is more interesting is how it makes us to relate to Egypt today.

Gustave Flaubert died about ten years after Aida was first performed, the same year that the Suez Canal was opened which seems more than a mere coincidence considering who it was that commissioned the piece (the Khedive) but any link is denied. When he visited Egypt he commented that it 'seemed like an immense stage set made expressly for us'. I may be guilty of over-interpretation but I take that to mean he found Egypt to have the characteristics of a set, a caricature, over the top and just unreal. On the other hand the American music critic Gustav Kobbe saw Aida as the real deal saying that it was 'as distinctively Egyptian as if he [Verdi]...had unearthed examples of ancient Egyptian temple music'.

There is a wonderful book by the French author Joris-Karl Huysmans called 'Au Rebours' which roughly translates to 'Against Nature'. It centres on the life of this reclusive aesthete called Des Esseintes. In one of the most notable and amusing of the novel's episodes the protagonist decides to visit London so he studies the maps, and readies himself for the journey. When he reaches Calais he stops and has lunch in an English cafe along a quayside, he is served by English waitresses, drinks warm beer and eats pies. After this experience rather than go ahead with the journey he returns home, he feels he has experienced the best that England can offer and by actually going to London he would condemn himself to a bad time, it could only be a failure.

I don't want to go to Egpyt, I know that makes me sound as mad an aesthete as Des Esseintes but I prefer the Egypt of Verdi, the reality could only be a disappointment.