This is Part 2 of a series of posts that examines Disney’s Aida in detail. Aida has a book by Linda Woolverton, David Henry Hwang and Robert Falls, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Elton John.
Act 1 Scene 1
A sudden rock chord completely breaks the tone of “Every Story is a Love Story” and marking the segue into the next musical number of the show, “Fortune Favours the Brave”. Linked by a few lines of recitative, during which Amneris sets up the situation for the audience, we definitely seem to be in rock opera territory. By the time we get into the song proper, our expectations for what we can expect from Aida are firmly in place.
The theme of destiny vs free will is introduced in this lyric. This will become an important idea as the play continues, one that plays superficially with the beliefs of Egyptian mythology but which is mostly based in romantic notions that lurk in our own minds in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde.
Tim Rice’s lyrics for the recitative work well, except for one section:
Egypt saw the mighty river
As its very heart and soul
Source of life for all her people
That only Egypt could control
Destruction of her southern neighbor justified
Nubia exploited, left with little more than pride
Here it is just the selection of the auxiliary verb ‘could’ that diffuses the power of the lyric. “Could” expresses conditional possibility and implies that Egypt merely has the capacity to control the Nile, when it is clear that this situation is one where control of the Nile is an absolutely necessity. That leaves us with a choice between “should” or “would”, which are the past forms of “shall” and “will”. Remember that “shall” is used when speaking in the first person and “will” is used in other persons, except when expressing determination. The question that arises now is whether or not Amneris is employing the majestic plural in this passage: in other words, is she herself a part ‘Egypt’ or is this just narration? If the former is intended, Rice should have used “would”; in the latter case, he should have used “should”.
After the recitative, a refrain of 8 bars carries us back to Ancient Egypt, hopefully with a coup de théâtre that is perhaps a bit more impressive than, as indicated in the book, the flying in of a few ‘large red sails’. We are now introduced to Radames and his soldiers as they load the spoils of war onto their barge as they sing “Fortune Favors the Brave”.
This song should really define the parameters Radames’ character: a brave explorer who loves the freedom his occupation brings him, a freedom that is threatened by his betrothal to Amneris. We don’t know this yet, but it is essential that the song highlights his fear of being trapped forever in the royal Egyptian court and makes clear that the objective behind his exploration is to discover something that gives his life meaning, something which can never be found within the walls of the palaces of Egypt.
Musically, the song hits the spot. It’s energetic and frenetic and feels like the perfect rock opera representation of Radames. However, the lyrics approach the matter of characterisation too broadly and don’t quite achieve everything they would had Rice been more meticulous in his craft. In the first stanza, Radames boasts of Egypts conquests: it appears that they have conquered everything and everyone in their attempts to control the Nile. It seems that the battle for control is over and that this song signals Radames’ triumphant return to Egypt. What’s rather odd, then, is the switch to the present tense in the second stanza:
The more we find, the more we see,
The more we come to learn
The more that we explore,
The more we shall return.
Is this not the final, triumphant return it seems to be? The lyric provides no real answer. Even more perplexing is the final couplet of this refrain. It’s a ridiculous, if not nonsensical, statement and the logic doesn’t seem suited to the character anyway. As we will see, Radames doesn’t really want to return for fear of being forever bound to duties in the palace and yet this lyric makes it sound like the favourite part of his journey is the return trip. That is if one assumes that a full stop or semi-colon separates line 2 from line 3. The lack of punctuation after the second line (in both the libretto and the score) means that the actor has to work his way around an unfortunate ambiguity in his communication of the lyric to us: without any conclusive guideline from the lyricist, the line could also mean: ‘the more we come to learn (that) the more that we explore, the more we shall return’. This conclusion is perhaps even more trite that the first possible reading – proof positive that a lack of specificity in the writing of lyrics really can be the undoing of a song’s dramatic functions.
After a chorus, the song continues:
It’s all worked out, my road is clear
The lines of latitude extend
Way beyond my wildest dreams
Toward some great triumphant end
We seized the day, we turned the tide
We touched the stars, we mocked the grave
We moved into uncharted lands
Fortune favors the brave
Again we seem to have a lyric that completely subverts the character. Radames’ road is ‘all worked out’: his father is forcing him into a position at the palace that Ramades doesn’t really want. It’s no ‘triumphant end’. It’s a pity about the first line of this stanza, because the rest of it so beautifully captures the character’s yearning for adventure and for an ending he can’t yet see, one that he knows will be confounded, as he later implies, by being trapped ‘in the palace yard’. Yet, the constant changing between tenses make it unclear whether or not all of his opportunities to avoid this sorry fate have been expended as we switch into the past tense once again for four lines of adventurous action. Drama is about the present moment and I feel these lines would be stronger if they were written in the present tense, supporting the idea that Radames has not given up on whatever it is that he is searching for and that he will do anything to find it.
The rest of the song continues much in the same vein, with another concession to the theme of destiny vs free will offered in the following verse:
Nothing is an accident
We are free to have it all
We are what we want to be
It’s in ourselves to rise or fall
Another chorus of the repeated title phrase concludes the song, leaving us a little bewildered, if we have been paying attention to the lyrics, as to who this mad truly is. There is enough to give the audience the right sensibility regarding Ramades as a character but, when it could be so much more specific and all the richer for it, what we have isn’t quite as satisfying as it could be either.
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