The Journey to Aida

Aida performs in the Kennedy Center Opera House September 9-23

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the world grew smaller. The journey from Europe to India was instantly reduced by 7,000 kilometers. To mark the opening of the waterway—and to even more closely align Egypt and Europe—the Khedive, the ruler of Egypt, hoped to have a new piece from Verdi, who initially declined. Instead, Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House welcomed its first patrons with a production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, written nearly two decades earlier.

The new opera house, modeled after Milan’s La Scala and completed the same year as the Suez Canal, ultimately had professional jealousy to thank for Verdi’s Egyptian opera. Auguste Mariette, an Egyptologist in the service of the Khedive, devised the scenario for the opera and, eager to see the project move forward, let it be known that he would approach Wagner if Verdi declined. With that, Verdi examined the scenario and found it to his liking. Aided by Camille du Locle, Verdi developed the detailed outline for an opera based on Mariette’s story, then turned to Antonio Ghislanzoni, with whom he had collaborated on a revised version of The Force of Destiny, to write the verses.

Compared to other recent operas from Verdi, like The Force of Destiny (1862) and Don Carlos (1867), Aida offers a fairly straightforward plot, which unfolds against the backdrop of an epic war between Egypt and Ethiopia. Amneris, the Egyptian princess, is in love with Radamès, who commands the Egyptian army. Radamès, however, loves Aida, an Ethiopian prisoner of war enslaved to Amneris.

“In the case of a large-scale military conflict, it is easy to forget that ‘the enemy’ is, in fact, made up of individual human beings who are not too different from ourselves,” says WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, who directs the new production. “When Aida and Radamès fall in love, they become all too aware of this fact. Despite their love for their respective countries, they can no longer bring themselves to an unreserved hatred of ‘the enemy.’” Things seem less complicated for Amneris, since her rival in love, Aida, is simultaneously representative of her own country’s “enemy.” But Amneris learns that destruction of her enemy is not necessarily the same as victory.

The intimate plot plays out in a setting that has proved a source of endless fascination. Ancient Egypt was an obvious choice for a large-scale piece celebrating Cairo’s new opera house. At the same time, Egyptian culture had long fascinated the West—evidence of Egypt’s appeal can be found in everything from Raphael’s 15th-century frescoes in the Vatican to Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Aida’s triumphant Cairo premiere, which took place on Christmas Eve 1871, earned Verdi the title “Commendatore of the Ottoman Order.” Its Italian debut, three months later, was a highly anticipated event; patrons eager to hear the master’s latest opera crammed the theater. The next five years saw performances across Italy, as well as in Buenos Aires, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Budapest, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Prague, Paris, London, Kiev, Rio de Janeiro, and Bucharest. By 1885, Aida had been performed in English, French, German, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Czech, Rumanian, Swedish, Croatian, Lettish, and Danish.

Aida’s spectacular Egyptian setting was integral to the occasion of its premiere, and it has been produced at both the 3500-year-old Luxor Temple in southern Egypt and at the foot of the Great Pyramids of Giza. But pyramids and elephants are hardly the reason for the work’s enduring popularity. As several modern productions have shown, the searing human drama at the heart of the opera needs little more than Verdi’s music to “set the stage” for both its epic scenes of military pomp and its moments of excruciating personal struggle. In this new production, RETNA’s distinctive designs reference the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, giving audiences a sense of a culture that was once impenetrably exotic; at the same time, their modernity underlines the timeless nature of the conflicts at the heart of the opera.

—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera