Everything you need to know about Verdi’s Aida in one place – right here!
What is the story?
Egypt and Ethiopia are at war. Egyptian Army General Radamès is chosen to lead an assault on the enemy, and hopes by being victorious, to win the hand of his lover Aida – an Ethiopian enslaved as handmaiden to Egyptian princess, Amneris. However, Amneris is in love with Radamès herself, and is growing suspicious.
Radamès returns from battle triumphant, but Aida is devastated – her own father Amonasro, who is actually the King of Ethiopia, has been taken captive. To make matters worse, the King of Eygpt rewards Radamès with an unwelcome gift – his daughter Amneris in marriage. When Amonasro tasks Aida with helping him avenge Ethiopia though Radamès, loyalties collide, with devastating consequence…
Who are the main characters?
Aida – Princess of Ethiopia, enslaved to Amneris (soprano)
Amneris – Princess of Egypt (mezzo-soprano)
Radamès – Egyptian General and Aida’s lover (tenor)
Amonasro – King of Ethiopia (baritone)
Ramfis – Egyptian high priest (bass)
The King of Egypt (bass)
The 60-strong chorus takes on the voice of the people, priests, slaves and prisoners during the opera, although a surprising number of scenes are quite intimate, featuring just a couple of characters.
What is this staging like?
Our Aida will be presented as a concert staging, meaning that the full orchestra will be visible onstage, in all its drama! But this is no concert – the performers inhabit their roles completely and are in full costume, and the staging can often be quite physical.
Although originally set in Ancient Egypt, the story of Aida is timeless. Director Annabel Arden is interpreting the opera as happening in a contemporary world where war is everywhere. The space is brought to life by evocative video projection (designed by Dick Straker) and a live feed of Aida herself, creating a representation – even when not singing – of her anguish. Objects symbolise memories of her homeland, to which she clings. Costumes, designed by Joanna Parker, are contemporary yet expressive of each character’s emotional qualities. See original costumes designs and inspirations below.
What is the music like?
Aida’s ‘big hit’ is the Triumphal March, which you’re sure to recognise. Within the opera, it marks Radamès’ victorious return from battle in Act II. The march uses a martial, war-like rhythm and layers brass upon brass as the melodic line rises, getting steadily louder until the full chorus enters, creating a magnificent wall of sound.
However, Aida also features music of great delicacy, such as Aida’s Act III aria ‘O patria mia’. A yearning lament for the homeland she will never see again (her father has just lost his kingdom and been taken captive), the soprano line is accompanied by a wistful oboe melody. With heart-breaking repetitions of the words ‘mai piu’ (never more), the aria becomes increasingly dreamlike, leading to an ethereal, floated top C. Hear it below sung by our own Aida – soprano Alexandra Zabala.
Listen out especially for the opening and close of the piece. Instead of a big, bold overture, Verdi chooses a hushed prelude – the violins open with Aida’s theme played almost as a whisper. And at the end, the music seems to fade out – the orchestra and chorus become more and more distant as the lovers die entombed together.
Who was the composer?
Aida was written by one of the best-loved operatic composers in history – Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). Born in Italy, Verdi composed 26 different operas during his lifetime, some of the most popular being La traviata, Rigoletto and Nabucco.
Verdi always looked for strong subjects featuring relatable, human characters. He had a knack for taking figures marginalised by society and telling their stories – putting them centre stage. Aida, as an enslaved Ethiopian princess, is no exception.
In 1870, Verdi received a prestigious commission from the Khedive of Egypt – to compose a new opera for the opening of the Khedivial Opera House. He accepted, and as he began to search for a subject, French librettist Camille du Locle suggested a story set in Ancient Egypt itself, sending Verdi a synopsis written by the famous Egyptologist Auguste Mariette.
Verdi was fascinated by the idea, but was adamant that the libretto should be in Italian, so hired a journalist to translate du Locle’s draft libretto. With everything in place, Verdi set to work and just four months later, the music was complete. The premiere, however, had to be delayed – the 1870–71 siege of Paris meant that the scenery and costumes (designed by Mariette himself) were trapped in the French capital, so Verdi’s Rigoletto had to be performed instead!
Aida eventually premiered in Cairo later in 1871, and was critically acclaimed. However, Verdi was unhappy that the Cairo audience had consisted mainly of politicians and invited bigwigs (rather than the general public), and so considered Aida’s first performance in Milan, which took place a few months later, to be the opera’s real premiere. Within a few years, Aida was being performed in opera houses all over the world, and today, it remains the 11th most frequently performed opera worldwide.
Did you know?
– Verdi commissioned ‘six trumpets of Egyptian shape’ (three in A-flat and three in B-natural) especially for the Triumphal March, using images on ancient Egyptian walls and tombs for reference. The trumpets created were approx. 1½-metre-long and straight, with only one valve and produced a war-like sound. All performances of the opera today require these unique ‘Aida trumpets’ – look out for ours! Years later, in 1922, archaeologists unearthed two trumpets in the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Uncannily, they were tuned to A-flat and B-natural – two keys which feature in the Triumphal March…
– At Aida‘s Milan premiere, Verdi (who also conducted the performance) was called back on stage 32 times by the audience, and was lavishly gifted an ivory baton and a star made of diamonds, with the word ‘Aida’ spelled in rubies!
– This concert staging marks the first time Aida has been performed at Opera North in 22 years. Don’t miss it!