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Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni
World première: Cairo Opera House, Egypt - December 24, 1871
Following the premiere of Don Carlos in 1867, the same year Gounod's Romeo et Juliette premiered, Verdi returned to his estate at Sant'Agata. He was 54 years old, a giant in the music world, wealthy and immensely popular. Over the course of the next year, he would be in touch with Camille du Locle, his French librettist, who was constantly presenting ideas for new operas to Verdi, all of which were rejected. Except for one – a four-page synopsis of an opera to be set in ancient Egypt. This brief synopsis had been written by Du Locle after a story by the famous French Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette.
Mariette was responsible for the discovery of many important archeological sites at Giza, Abydos, Sakkara and Thebes, and while there is some doubt that the plot that would eventually become Aida was totally of his own creation, he nonetheless sent the story to Du Locle with the precise mission of engaging a famous composer to write an opera for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1870.
Verdi was the first choice, but the Khedive of Egypt would also accept Gounod and then Wagner should Verdi decline the commission. But, by the time the synopsis was in Verdi's hands, the Canal had already been opened for several months. The story that Aida was intended for the opening of the Cairo Opera House is also false, since Rigoletto was played at the opening in 1869.
Verdi agreed to write the new opera -- not in French as Du Locle proposed, but in Italian. He hired Antonio Ghislanzoni to translate Du Locle's libretto, and he himself played a significant role in writing verses for the new opera. In a brief four months, Aida was finished. But, fate, and war were to intervene.
The Franco-Prussian war, which began in July 1870, was at its height. Paris was under siege, and the scenery that had been built there for Aida could not be shipped to Cairo. The delayed Cairo debut of Aida finally occurred on December 24, 1871, and the first Italian performances at La Scala in Milan six weeks later. At both premieres, Aida was a triumph, as it has been at every performance ever since.
In spite of Aida's widespread appeal (it is prevented from being among the top ten only because of the large scale resources required to stage the piece), there was one person who didn't care for the new opera and demanded a refund. Shortly after the Parma premiere, a man named Prospero Bertani was bold enough to write the composer directly, demanding not only the cost of his ticket, but reimbursement of train fare and dinner. Slightly amused, the composer asked his publisher Ricordi to write a check for everything but the meal - which he would have had anyway at home. Verdi requested a signed remittance from Bertani for the sum promising that the latter would never again subject himself to the "horrible specters" of his music, unless the composer personally authorized it and covered the expenses. Bertani happily produced the necessary documentation. Verdi then instructed his publisher to print the letter in the Italian newspapers ("as many as you like"), which caused the poor man to become persona non grata everywhere he went. Signor Bertani implored the composer to revive his reputation, but in a flash of his acute mean streak (and affront to his ego), Verdi wouldn't budge.
For more information about Verdi's Aida, download An Irreverent Guide for Enjoying: Giuseppe Verdi's Aida (PDF).
In the temple, as priestesses chant the praises of Ptah, priests consecrate Radamès' sword in a sacred ritual.
ACT II. Ethiopia has been defeated. Amneris, entertained by slaves, prepares for Radamès' triumphal entry into Thebes. When Aida approaches, the princess dismisses her other attendants and tries to learn Aida's private thoughts, first pretending Radamès is dead, then saying he is still alive. Certain from Aida's reactions — horror, followed by joy — that her slave loves Radamès, Amneris leaves for the festivities. Aida reiterates her prayers.
At the city gates, victory is celebrated in parade and dance, a ceremony observed by the King and Amneris. Radamès is borne in and crowned with a victor's wreath. Captured Ethiopians follow, among them Amonasro, Aida's father, who signals her not to betray his identity as king. Impressed by Amonasro's eloquent plea, Radamès asks as his reward that the priests' death sentence on the prisoners be overruled and that they be freed. The King grants this, as well as Amneris' hand, but keeps Amonasro in custody.
ACT III. On a moonlit bank of the Nile, Amneris is led by Ramfis to a temple of Isis for a wedding vigil. Nearby, waiting for Radamès, Aida is overcome with nostalgia for her homeland. Amonasro, who suddenly appears, preys on these feelings, forcing his daughter to agree to ask Radamès where the Egyptian army plans to enter Ethiopia. This she does when Radamès appears, ardent with dreams of their future life together. Just as he reveals the military secret, Amonasro steps out of hiding, and Ramfis and Amneris come forth from the temple. While Aida escapes with her father, Radamès surrenders to the priests as a traitor.
ACT IV. In a temple of judgment, awaiting trial, Radamès is unmoved by Amneris' offer to save him if he will renounce Aida and marry her. When he is led away, Amneris' pride dissolves, her love for Radamès revealed by her agony in hearing him condemned to death. Enraged, the princess curses the judges. Buried alive in a crypt, Radamès is joined by Aida, who has hidden there to share his fate. The lovers bid farewell to earth as Amneris, above the tomb, prays for peace.
– courtesy of Opera News
As one of the most internationally acclaimed Italian composers of his time, Giuseppe Verdi has dominated the standard repertoire for over a century. Born in Busseto to Carlo Guiseppe Verdi, and innkeeper, Verdi attended the local Jesuit school where he as first introduced to music. By the age of 10, he was the assistant organist at his local church; at the age of 13, Verdi was already an assistant conductor of the Busseto Orchestra.
Later, Verdi moved to Milan but was unable to enroll in the conservatory because he exceeded to age limit. Instead, he took private lessons from Vincenzo Lavigna, the harpsichordist at the Scala Theater. In 1837, he composed his first opera, Oberto, which enjoy moderate success. It was Nabucco (1842), however, that Verdi became a legend.
During the "galley years" from 1843 to 1853, Verdi continued to compose operas under the patronage of Bartolomeo Merelli, one of Milan's most important impresarios. Some of his more notable works from this period include I Lombardi (1843), Ernani (1844), and Rigoletto (1851). His production of Macbeth (1847), an adaptation of Shakespeare's masterpiece, became one of the first operas without a love story.
At 49, Verdi had been elected deputy to the first Italian parliament and, at Cavour's request, composed a national hymn to promote feelings of solidarity within the new nation. With the death of Rossini in 1868, Verdi composed the nationalistic Requiem Mass in homage to his illustrious colleague modeled on Rossini's overture for Guglielmo Tell.
In 1871, Verdi composed Aida, intended to be Egypt's national opera. With its premiere in Cairo, the opera became an immediate success and has remained one of Verdi's greatest artistic achievements.
Verdi died of a stroke in Milan on January 27, 1901.
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