OPERA The Italian Opera Company of Chicago


Aida: Preliminaries of composition and analysis of Act III
By John Rizzo

The most common misconception about Verdi's Aida is that it was composed specifically to inaugurate the new Cairo Opera House and to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The new theater along with a number of European-style hotels, was built by the Khedive of Egypt, the Ottman Empire’s viceroy, as an attraction for the anticipated throngs of European business people that would descend on Cairo when the Suez Canal became functional.

The construction of the Suez Canal, which would ultimately lead to the composition of Aida, was a true marvel of 19th century engineering and marked the culmination of about 70 years of intense interest by Europeans in Egypt that began with the accidental discovery of the so-called Rosetta Stone. The damaged stone fragment, found by an officer of Napoleon near the town called Rosetta by the Europeans, bears an etched proclamation in three languages - Greek, Demotic Egyptian and Hieroglyphs. For many centuries scholars were unable to unlock the mysteries of Ancient Egypt because hieroglyphics were untranslatable. And it still took another 23 years for scholars to crack the code. But once hieroglyphics were translatable, a new wave of study and digging began all over Egypt.


Auguste Mariette

One of the many European scholars that flocked to Egypt in the wake of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone was August Mariette, a Frenchman and a friend of Camille du Locle, the librettist for Verdi's grand opera of 1867, Don Carlos. Mariette (or Mariette Bey, as he was officially known) was commissioned by the Khedive to come up with an original opera to celebrate the opening of the canal. Hoping that many Europeans (and their money) would come to Cairo when the Suez Canal opened, the Khedive wanted to make his rich foreign guests as comfortable as possible. So he lit on the idea of producing a new work for his brand new Italian-style opera house. At that time Verdi was the leading composer of opera, so who better to compose a new opera for the new opera house? One way or another, Mariette came up with a synopsis of a story about ancient Egypt, which he passed on to du Locle, who in turn forwarded it to Verdi with the offer of a king's ransom if he would compose an opera to inaugurate the new Cairo opera house.

Ever since the premiere of Don Carlos, du Locle had showered Verdi with ideas for further collaboration, but the typically recalcitrant Verdi turned them all down. He was also initially negative on the Egyptian proposal so the Khedive had to settle for a performance of Rigoletto to open his new opera house. But the Khedive still wanted an original opera and he pressed the issue, turning the negotiations over to the Greek-born director of the new theater, Draneht Bey. This forceful individual finally told Verdi that the Khedive was getting impatient and that if Verdi remained unwilling, the director was authorized to approach Wagner with the same proposal. When Verdi heard that, he immediately agreed to compose the opera that became Aida. The opera was supposed to open in December of 1870, but the premiere had to be put off because the sets and costumes, which had been made in Paris, could not leave the French capital because of the Franco-Prussian War. So the first Cairo performance of Aida did not take place until Christmas Eve of 1871, followed a couple of weeks later by the La Scala premiere.

Triumphal March at the Met

In the contract, Verdi was committed to premiere Aida in Cairo unless, for any reason, a delay up to six months occurred that kept the opera from opening. After this time, Verdi would still collect his huge fee and would be free to premiere the opera wherever he wanted. Because of the war and the problem with the sets, the Egyptian premiere was in fact delayed long enough for Verdi to be contractually free to do whatever he wished. When it became clear that the delay would free Verdi from his legal obligation to the Khedive, Draneht Bey traveled to Italy and passionately appealed to the composer to overlook this stipulation and hold off on the Italian production until the premiere was staged in Cairo. Magnanimously, Verdi agreed.

Aida was immediately a huge international hit, which intensified the interest in all things Egyptian. As a matter of fact, the Art Deco style of clothing, furniture, art and architecture that dominated all forms of design in 1920s America, is a direct result of the Egyptian craze. In New York, one can clearly see this influence in the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, while in Chicago, the Merchandise Mart and the Civic Opera House (an incredibly appropriate place to experience Aida) are definitely designed in the Art Deco style.

Verdi's heroine, Aida, is decidedly a Shakespearean type of heroine with deep inner conflicts. Torn between her fierce sense of patriotism and her equally intense and all-consuming love for Radames, we can see why Verdi was inspired to compose such beautiful and dramatic music for this role. (He was also no doubt inspired by the artistry of Teresa Stoltz, for whom he specifically crafted the part.) In Act III of Aida, the slave/princess is forced to resolve her inner conflict, and thereby the crisis that she endures is about as dramatic a situation that you can imagine.

In this brilliant act, Verdi has a wealth of his favorite kinds of dramatic material to draw from, and not just the human conflict. First there is the inherent exoticism in a musical setting suggestive of ancient Egypt. All composers relished the opportunity to express the exotic in their music because it gave them the excuse to be unusually creative, to add a distinct kind of spicy flavor to their normal musical voices. (Some, of course, succeeded better than others.)

As someone once said about the instrumental prelude to Act III of Aida, "If ancient Egyptian music didn't actually sound like this, it should have!" With its sparkling string pizzicato and open octaves, and the ephemeral flute with its trills and wandering scales, and the chanting unison offstage choruses, this very exotic music is extremely evocative of a sultry Nile evening 4,000 years ago. The brief exchange between Ramfis and Amneris once more introduces the religious theme. True, their goddess may be Isis, but there is a distinct similarity between this scene and those with Christian priests and heroines in other Verdi operas.
The beautiful aria, "O patria mia," is more than just a pretty tune for a top-notch soprano. Dramatically, this aria indicates just how deeply Aida feels for her native Ethiopia and sets up the resolution of the conflict between her and her father, as well as her own internal conflict in the ensuing duet. It also establishes musically the kind of pastoral imagery that will recur multiple times as the scene unfolds.

The duet, of course, is one of Verdi's patented father/daughter scenes, another example of the filial relationship that so fascinated Verdi. Very reminiscent of the scene between Violetta and Germont in Act II of La traviata, the stern father figure intimidates the daughter and ultimately bends her to his will. And like this earlier work, note how the Aida scene develops, musically and dramatically, in stages, so the outcome is all the more believable. First, in a serious mode, Amanasro tells his daughter that he has come to her on a vital mission. We assume that he has overheard the "Patria mia" because he begins his assault subtly, by himself evoking, in a sweet melody, an image of their idyllic homeland. Then he presents a vision of her that inverts the melancholic sentiment of her aria - she can vanquish her royal rival Amneris, realize her love for Radames and reign with him in blissful contentment in her beloved Ethiopia, which of course elicits a positive response from the unsuspecting Aida.

Leontyne Price as Aida in 1968

Then he springs the trap, telling her how she must first get Radames to turn traitor in order to achieve this ecstasy. Still deeply conflicted, Aida refuses, setting off a violent exchange that musically reflects both their feelings. Realizing how his daughter's love still can thwart his objective, Amanasro conjures up an image of the ghost of Aida's dead mother, whose imaginary skeletal finger points at her from the grave, accusing her of being a traitor and a slave of Egypt. This is too much for Aida and she gives in (just as Violetta gives in to Germont only after he paints a picture of her getting old and Alfredo looking to greener pastures). Because we were convinced by the music of "O patria mia", Aida's submission to her father and the resolution of her inner conflict in this direction, seem all very plausible and realistic.

Radames now enters with a rhapsodic expression of his love for Aida. Torn himself between love of country and romantic love, this entrance is also a musical and dramatic setup, a tip-off of how he will resolve his inner conflict. After initially putting him off by reminding him of his duty to marry Amneris, Aida gets him off balance by hinting that he too can have it all, both her and happiness. But he tells her he already has that figured out. Listen here for a typically Verdian treatment of the music, a military theme for Radames' vision of leading the Egyptian army to victory over the Ethiopians, which he believes will result in his getting anything he wants from the Pharaoh.

Now to an insinuating melody in the oboe, Aida's music becomes obviously seductive. Like a siren, she uses all the persuasive power of her femininity on Radames. Soon we know, perhaps only subconsciously, that he will give in, even before he says the words. And how? Because Radames picks up the very same seductive melody that Aida has just been singing, indicating his desire is now in total harmony with hers! We may have already consciously forgotten the emotional love theme that brought Radames on stage, but Verdi used it just as he used "O patria mia" to implant this feeling in us, so that what happens later seems all the more logical. Even more so because Radames' love theme is now reintroduced, as he gives into the blissful fantasy of a "happily-ever-after" scenario.

Now Aida springs her trap, as Amonasro listens intently from his hiding place. When Radames innocently divulges the Gorges of Napata as the route for the Egyptian army, Aida's father leaps onto the stage exultantly, revealing his true identity as Egypt's mortal enemy. Now comes the brief and violent trio, in which Radames bewails his disgust with himself at being dishonored by the woman he loves, while Aida and her father vainly try to comfort him. Almost immediately after Amneris and the guards rush onstage this powerful act ends with some music that is perfectly expressive of all of this emotional turmoil (also anticipating the music of the opening "storm" scene in Verdi's opera of 16 years later, Otello).

The dramatic impact we experience from this great act can only happen in opera, not in a regular stage play. This is because music acts with such a powerful force on our emotions. But only a truly great dramatist, not simply a composer, can create this effect. And there is no greater musical dramatist than Giuseppe Verdi.

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