The Story Behind the Opera "Aida" by Guiseppe Verdi
“Aida” is a four-act opera crafted by the legendary Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, with Antonio Ghislanzoni setting the Italian libretto. Set in ancient Egypt, the opera has been performed over a thousand times since it was created in 1886.
Verdi was commissioned by the “Khedive of Egypt,” Isma'il Pasha, to craft an opera to celebrate the inauguration of the “Khedivial Opera House.” He was paid 150,000 francs an honorarium. However, the “Siege of Paris” by Prussian forces delayed its premiere to 1871. The plot of the opera bears a striking resemblance to “La Nitteti” by Pietro Metastasio, although it is completely unintentional.
Verdi had originally decided to replace the traditional full overture with a brief orchestral prelude for “Aida.” He subsequently crafted a “potpourri” overture to replace the original prelude. However, he finally decided to exclude the overture, as he considered it to be boring and pretentious. The overture got a rare performance at the NBC Symphony Orchestra but has never been commercially utilized.
“Aida” received critical acclaim at its premiere in Cairo on the 24th of December, 1871. Verdi wasn’t present at the event but expressed his displeasure about the lack in the general public in the audience. He went on to consider the European premiere in Milan, held at “La Scala” in 1872 as the real debut. The libretto in “Aida” doesn’t specify a specific time, so it faced difficulty to decide on authentic sets and costumes during the first production. Considering the 3000-year long ancient Egyptian history, modern productions can choose any precise time accordingly.
This performance was also greeted with great enthusiasm. “Aida” was soon produced by all major Italian opera houses, namely “Teatro Costanzi,” “Teatro Comunale di Bologna,” “Teatro Regio di Torino,” “La Fenice,” “Teatro di San Carlo,” and “Teatro Regio di Parma.”
Preface: The Ethiopian princess Aida is enslaved by Egyptians. However, Radamès, a military commander, fancies her and struggles to choose between his loyalty and love. Meanwhile, Amneris, the king’s daughter, has fallen for Radamès, although it is purely one-sided.
The first scene takes place at the King's palace. Radamès is informed by the high priest Ramfis, that their conflict with the Ethiopians will inevitably lead to war. The duet “Yes, Ethiopia dares once again to threaten our power” accompanies the scene. Radamès shares his dream of leading the Egyptians to glory. He also hopes to win over Aida, as he indulges in his feelings through the aria “Heavenly Aida.” Aida also has feelings towards Radamès, secretly. She is also the daughter of King Amonasro of Ethiopia. The looming invasion has been planned to free her from captivity.
In the next scene, the Egyptian princess Amneris enters the hall, thinking about Radamès. However, she also doubts that the commander likes someone else, and expresses her thoughts by singing “In your looks, I trace a joy unwonted.” Amneris notices that Radamès looks distracted after seeing Aida, but hides her envy successfully by being cordial to her through the aria “Come, O delight, come closer.”
Next, the King enters the hallway, accompanied by Ramfis, the High Priest. As the court assembles, it is announced that the Ethiopian King Amonasro is marching towards the city of Thebes. The King subsequently declares war and promotes Radamès, making him the Commander of the Egyptian army. The chorus “Oh fate of Egypt looming, War, war, war!” is performed in the background. Radamès enters “Temple of Vulcan” to complete his commemoration as another chorus “On! Of Nilus' sacred river, guard the shores” is sung. Back in the hall, Aida also struggles to choose between her love for Radamès and her loyalty towards her father and country. She sings the aria “Return a conqueror,” as everybody leaves for the “Temple of Vulcan.”
The priestesses at the temple perform majestic dances to mark the ceremony as the chorus, “Radamès: O mighty Ptah” is sung. Finally, Radamès becomes the commander-in-chief as the crowd breaks into another chorus titled “O mighty one, guard and protect!” Everybody in attendance prays for victory in the upcoming war by singing, “Hear us, O guardian deity.”
Celebrations are in full flow at Amneris’s chamber as everybody sings, “Our songs his glory praising” to honor Radamès' victory. However, Amneris still doubts Aida’s presence in the mix and tries to ignore her thoughts by indulging in the performance of the slaves. The chorus “Come bind your flowing tresses” follows.
Soon, Aida is summoned to the chamber as Amneris orders people to go away. She subsequently tricks Aida into professing her feelings for Radamès by falsely announcing the Commander’s demise. Aida is shocked and confesses her love by singing, “The battle's outcome was cruel for your people.” Amneris is enlarged and vows retribution as the chorus “Up! at the sacred shores of the Nile” is sung. She then storms out of the chamber.
Radamès returns triumphant from the war. As the troops enter the city of Thebes, they render out the chorus “Glory to Egypt, (and) to Isis!” The King issues a decree that Radamès can wish for anything. Subsequently, the Ethiopian captives are summoned onstage. Amonasro, the defeated king is among them. However, when Aida reacts upon seeing her father, the King pacifies her to conceal his true identity. Amonasro then further proclaims the Ethiopian king has perished in battle. All the Ethiopians plead for mercy. However, Ramfis and his priests class for their heads as the chorus titled “Destroy, O King, these ferocious creatures” is performed.
Radamès, however, plead for their lives in exchange for his reward. The King agrees and declares his commander as the successor to his throne and also the future husband of his daughter. The crowd breaks into a rapturous chorus, “O King, by the sacred gods, Glory to Egypt!” Amonasro and Aida are kept as hostages to make sure the Ethiopians won't plan any sort of vengeance.
The wedding ceremony is arranged at the Temple of Isis, as the High Priest and his disciples engage in prayers on the banks of the River Nile. Meanwhile, Aida is waiting outside the temple to meet Radamès, as pre-planned. She sings the aria “Oh, my dear country!” while waiting. She is further instructed by her father to uncover the whereabouts of the Egyptian army from her lover. She reluctantly agrees as Amonasro hides to overhear the couple. Radamès reaffirms his love and vows to marry Aida through the song, “I see you again, my sweet Aida!” The couple decides to flee to the vast desert.
Radamès further proposes a safe route for their escape and also reveals the location where his army might attack. Amonasro leaves his hideout and reveals his true identity. Simultaneously, Ramfis and Amneris leave the temple and notice the conference. Amonasro draws out his weapon to kill them but is disarmed by Radamès. He orders the king to flee with his daughter as the imperial guards arrive and take him captive.
Amneris, owing to her feelings, wants to free Radamès. She instructs the guards to bring the prisoner to her while singing, “My hated rival has escaped me.” She requests Radamès to deny all allegations, which the commander refuses. He is also relieved at the news that Aida is safe as the duet “Already the priests are assembling” is performed.
At the court, Radamès is called forward to defend himself as Ramfis recounts the charges against him. However, he stays silent and is sentenced to death. Amneris pleads to the priests for Radamès, but her appeals are rejected. She breaks down and curses the priests while singing the aria “Alas, I feel death, Radamès, your fate is decided” as Radamès is taken away.
The prisoner is taken to a dark vault beneath the temple, which is sealed up to let him rot. Radamès is still optimistic that Aida is safe, but soon realizes he isn’t alone in the cell. Aida had concealed herself in the cell to spend her last moments with Radamès. The aria “The fatal stone now closes over me” accompanies the reunion. The couple accepts their fate as Radamès sings, “To die! So pure and lovely!” In the temple, Amneris is seen praying to “Goddess Isis” for mercy. In the cell, Aida passes away in the arms of Radamès as the priests pray to the god “Ptah.” The chorus “Almighty Ptah” closes the scene.
The composition of “Aida” utilizes an on-stage banda, strings, harp, tam-tam, cymbals, bass drum, triangle, tuba, and bass trombone. The music also includes 4 horns, trombones, and flutes (3 each), and trumpets, bassoons, bass clarinet, clarinets, and oboes (2 each).
“Aida” is considered one of the earliest outdoor operas. The flamboyant setting and staging duly complement its monumental decor but don't eclipse the interior complexity and subtlety of the music or the characters. Despite certain spectacular scenes, Verdi successfully introduces his characters through some transparent music. Once the grandeur is removed, the softness and mental aptitude of the characters are made entirely visible. For example, Radamès is supposed to be a big warrior, the leader of the army, but turns out to be a tender human being.
The prelude also adds to the subtlety of Verdi’s musical genius. Instead of a loud opening, the audience is treated with melancholic romantic preludes. Aida’s theme is almost velvety, the violins acting like a delicate whisper. This offers a nice contrast to the inflexible and solemn priests. “Aida” continues to be a principal member of the standard operatic repertory. The opera is frequently performed all over the world, including renowned operatic carnivals.
- In October 1873, “Aida” premiered in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the Teatro Colón..
- In November 1873, the opera debuted at the Academy of Music in New York. This was the first performance in the United States of America.
- The German premiere was held at the Berlin State Opera in April 1874, while the Austrian debut took place in the same month at the Vienna State Opera.
- The Hungarian State Opera House held the first performance in Budapest, Hungary in April 1875.
- In April 1876, the France premiere at the Salle Ventadour in Paris used the same cast that performed at the original Milan debut.
- “Aida” crossed the English Channel in June 1876. The performance was staged at the Royal Opera House in London.
- The opera debuted in Australia at the Royal Theatre in Melbourne in September 1877.
- In 1877, another performance was held at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany.
- The Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm held the premiere of “Aida” in February 1880.
- In March 1880, another performance was held at the Palais Garnier in Paris, France.
- In November 1886, “Aida” was held at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, USA.
- The Brazilian premiere took place in June 1886, at the Theatro Lyrico Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro. This performance is famous for an altercation between the local conductor and the Italian touring opera, which resulted in the rejection of substitute conductors. Arturo Toscanini was responsible for the rescue act, as he conducted the opera successfully entirely from memory, which subsequently launched his career.
- In 1949, the opera returned to New York City with a complete concert and was duly televised by NBC. It was divided into two segments during the telecast due to its elongated length.
- In June 1954, the audio portion of this NBC broadcast was released on CD and LP by RCA Victor.
- In 1955 and 19598, the famous Italian and Austrian conductors Tullio Serafin and Herbert von Karajan staged their performances.
- La Scala, the famous opera house in Milan, conducted a lavish production of “Aida” in 2006 and 2007.
The final moments of “Aida” might feel a tad muddled. Surely, a society that negated the value of human life so much should have dispatched the protagonist off more severely? At least the music suggested so initially. The standard humanity - love, jealousy, or loyalty was supposed to take a backseat in a desensitized society. But Verdi clearly had other ideas. The contrast he brings to the table is etched even more by the theme of the central trio - some beautiful high notes are tasked to offer the variations.
Verdi’s music left hardly anything for the audience to desire. It’s a palette that completely satisfies your musical cravings. He had composed “Aida” in somewhat of a transition period, and his usage of vintage and passionate melodic forces have further influenced the future productions to adjust their repertoire accordingly. “Aida” is gorgeous, a template for the “aesthetics.” It also has a sense of magnificence and completeness which will make the viewers wonder - what more can be accomplished?
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