Affiche d'Aïda, représentation donnée à l'Hippodrome Opera Company, Cleveland (Ohio), 1908
Affiche d'Aïda, représentation donnée à l'Hippodrome Opera Company, Cleveland (Ohio), 1908 © Getty

Everything you always wanted to know about… Aida by Verdi

Aida is often considered as one of the most spectacular operas by Verdi. Both monumental and intimist, this work in four acts set in Egypt is still performed in so many festivals. Let us take a look at this opera, which surely does not owe its success only to pharaohs...

When Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) writes Aida in 1870, he is one of the most sought-after composers of the moment. Isma'il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, commissions Verdi to write the opera, to celebrate the opening of the Royal Opera House. Contrary to popular belief, Verdi does not create it to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. It is Camille Du Locle, co-director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris, who convinces the composer to accept the project.

Giuseppe Verdi, dirigeant Aïda
Giuseppe Verdi, dirigeant Aïda © Getty

If on one hand we find ourselves in ancient Egypt, on the other, the story is timeless. Love, jealousy, betrayal, dead lovers… Well-known subjects. Radamès (ténor), Captain of the Guard, is in love with Aida (soprano), an Ethiopian princess enslaved by Amneris (mezzo-soprano), the daughter of the Egyptian King who is, of course, in love with the captain too. Her jealousy soon breaks out resulting in the death of both lovers, sealed up in a dark vault.

That is basically the story. Let us find out now the history surrounding the birth of the work…

“Bloody Goths, source of all my troubles!”

The creation of Aida, originally scheduled for January 1871, is not smooth. First obstacle: the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. The music is ready, but the premiere in Cairo is delayed  by force of circumstances. The city of Paris is under siege, and Auguste Mariette, the French Egyptologist who took care of the design and the sets, is stuck in the capital with the sets and costumes. He is the one who designed them, and they are created in the Paris Opera.

Costume dessiné par Auguste Mariette pour Aïda
Costume dessiné par Auguste Mariette pour Aïda © Getty

The composer is forced not only to postpone the premiere in Cairo, but also the premiere to be held at La Scala in Milan. Irritated, Verdi reportedly exclaimed “Bloody Goths, source of all my troubles!”.

Aida is finally first performed at Cairo's Khedivial Opera House on 24 December 1871. It is an immediate success, but that is nothing compared to what the author experiences during the premiere in Milan, on 8 February 1872, which he considers its real premiere. The maestro, who is also conducting the orchestra, is recalled on stage 32 times and receives an ivory baton decorated with a diamond star, with the name of Aida in rubies and his own in other precious stones.

A taste of the Orient… the concern for authenticity

“Making it realistic”, that is Auguste Mariette’s obsession. He is an archaeologist and Egyptologist, and contributes significantly to the staging of Aida, checking each element with scientific rigour. The risk of bringing the opera into ridicule is never far away… In July 1870, he expresses his concern in a letter to Paul Draneht, General Manager of the Cairo Opera House: “A king may be quite handsome in granite with an enormous crown on his head. But when it comes to dressing one of flesh and bone and making him walk and sing... that becomes embarrassing and, it is to be feared, makes people laugh.”

Portrait de l'égyptologue Auguste Mariette vers 1881
Portrait de l'égyptologue Auguste Mariette vers 1881 © Getty

For the decor of the premiere, the archaeologist does not hesitate to draw inspiration from his latest findings. The costumes of the soldiers in act II come directly from the tomb of Ramses III. Likewise, the jewellery worn by the actors are reminiscent of those in the Egyptian Museum of Boulaq, which Mariette founded.

Verdi too is working hard to make the sets and costumes authentic. He asks Mariette, especially about the sacred dances, the existence of priestesses of Isis… But despite his good intentions, he faces a number of difficulties; for example, when it comes to re-creating the ancient Egyptian trumpet of the famous “Triumphal March” in act 2. Apart from some images on walls and tombs and an original trumpet in the Louvre, very little is known about this instrument. Verdi commissions Giuseppe Pelitti, a well-known manufacturer in Milan, to design the famous trumpets according to his vague instructions: “six trumpets of Egyptian shape.” As a result, the manufacturer gives him some long instruments very unpleasant to listen to…

Aida, performed with great fanfare on one hand…

Aida, a historical costume drama? The only thing people remember is its flamboyant staging and setting, with its monumental decor, the dances and chorus... It may be something that eclipses the musical subtlety and the interior complexity of the characters.

Aida is one of the first outdoor operas. As explained by Jean-Marcel Humbert in L’Avant-Scène Opéra dedicated to Aida, the real turning point comes in 1913, the first year of the Arena di Verona Festival. The work is presented “in the boundless context of arenas (…) in celebration of the centenary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi.” Since then, it has been performed about 500 times (and it is on the agenda this year, too!).

Représentation d'Aïda au festival de Vérone (acte II, scène2), 2010
Représentation d'Aïda au festival de Vérone (acte II, scène2), 2010 © Getty

Aida has been performed in other ancient settings: at the Pyramids of Giza (since 1912), at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (since the late 1930s) and, of course, at the Roman Theatre of Orange, since 1936. It has also been staged in stadiums, like in Paris and Shanghai.

But through the performances, the majestic side and even the Egyptian side of the work evaporate, sometimes for the benefit of the universal themes that characterise it. And apart from those scenes such as the triumphal scene in Act II, the number of characters is limited.

…and with drama and softness on the other

Despite the pomp of certain scenes, Verdi often presents his characters through very clear music. And once we remove the gold layer, we are able to see the power and softness of their feelings.

Radamès, for example, who is supposed to be the Captain of the Guard, welcomed with great fanfare and glory, turns out to be a tender warrior. Chantal Cazaux highlights this in the introduction of L’Avant-Scène Opéra: “What other (supposedly heroic) opera tenor enters an elegiac romance and dies in evaporated bliss?“

An important subtlety by the prelude of the work: one might expect a loud opening. But, instead, Verdi chooses softness: he writes a brief orchestral prelude. The violins play Aida’s theme, like a whisper. This softness contrasts with the theme of priests, which is firm and solemn. The prelude thus breaks with full overtures that are often used in opera.

Moreover, for the Milan premiere in 1872, Verdi composes another (11-minute) overture to replace the original, which includes all the themes in the work. However, in the end, he decides not to have it performed.

Teresa Stolz and no one else!

“They say she is the world’s greatest opera singer, I believe that must be true because it is hard for me to imagine someone better than her”. Singer and writer Blanche Roosevelt for the Chicago Times, after hearing the Requiem by Verdi in Paris, 1875.

For the Cairo performance in 1871, Verdi dreams of having Teresa Stolz sing the role of Aida. She is 37, and is one of the best in the field. She already sang for Verdi, in The Troubadour and A Masked Ball between 1864 and 1865. Two years later, she is Elisabeth of Valois in Don Carlos and triumphs as Leonora in The Power of Fate at La Scala in 1869.

Portrait de la cantatrice Teresa Stolz
Portrait de la cantatrice Teresa Stolz © Getty

In 1871, Teresa Stolz is asked to play the role of Amneris, although the role of Aida was written for her. Since it is too expensive for the Cairo premiere, she performs the following year in Milan, finally singing in the role of Aida.

Just like his characters, Verdi soon finds himself at the centre of a sentimental rivalry. His relationship with composer Angelo Mariani (Teresa's fiancé) is not going well, to such an extent that Mariani declines to conduct the premiere. He thinks Verdi and his lover are having an affair.

Even Giuseppina, the composer’s wife, expresses her concern through a series of letters. But this alleged affair between Verdi and Teresa Stolz was never proved.