Verdi’s Aida

Event: Verdi’s Aida
Date: October 6, 2018, 12:55 pm
Run Time: 3 hours 56 minutes with two intermissions
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for Aidaper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for Aidaper student • $11.00 online


Egypt, during the reign of the pharaohs. At the royal palace in Memphis, the high priest Ramfis tells the warrior Radamès that Ethiopia is preparing another attack against Egypt. Radamès hopes to command his army. He is in love with Aida, the Ethiopian slave of Princess Amneris, the king’s daughter. Radamès dreams that victory in the war would enable him to free her and marry her (“Celeste Aida”). But Amneris loves Radamès, and when the three meet, she jealously senses his feelings for Aida. A messenger tells the King of Egypt and the assembled priests and soldiers that the Ethiopians are advancing. The king names Radamès to lead the army, and all join in a patriotic anthem. Left alone, Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and loyalty to her native country, where her father, Amonasro, is king (Ritorna vincitor). She prays to the gods for mercy. In the temple of Vulcan, the priests consecrate Radamès. Ramfis orders him to protect the homeland.

Ethiopia has been defeated, and Amneris waits for the triumphant return of Radamès. When Aida approaches, the princess sends away her other attendants so that she can learn her slave’s private feelings (Duet: “Fu la sorte dell’armi”). She first pretends that Radamès has fallen in battle, then says he is still alive. Aida’s reactions leave no doubt that she loves Radamès. Amneris, determined to be victorious over her rival, leaves for the triumphal procession.

At the city gates the king and Amneris observe the celebrations and crown Radamès with a victor’s wreath (Triumphal scene: Gloria all’Egitto). Captured Ethiopians are led in. Among them is Amonasro, Aida’s father, who signals his daughter not to reveal his identity as king. Radamès is impressed by Amonasro’s eloquent plea for mercy and asks for the death sentence on the prisoners to be overruled and for them to be freed. The king grants his request but keeps Amonasro in custody. The king declares that as a victor’s reward, Radamès will have Amneris’s hand in marriage.

On the eve of Amneris’s wedding, Ramfis and Amneris enter a temple on the banks of the Nile to pray. Aida, who is waiting for Radamès, is lost in thoughts of her homeland. Amonasro suddenly appears. Invoking Aida’s sense of duty, he makes her agree to find out from Radamès which route the Egyptian army will take to invade Ethiopia. Amonasro hides as Radamès arrives and assures Aida of his love. They dream about their future life together, and Radamès agrees to run away with her. Aida asks him about his army’s route, and just as he reveals the secret, Amonasro emerges from his hiding place. When he realizes that Amonasro is the Ethiopian king, Radamès is horrified by what he has done. While Aida and Amonasro try to calm him, Ramfis and Amneris step out of the temple. Father and daughter are able to escape, but Radamès surrenders to the priests.

Radamès awaits trial as a traitor, believing Aida to be dead. Even after he learns that she has survived, he rejects an offer by Amneris to save him if he renounces Aida. When he is brought before the priests, he refuses to answer their accusations and is condemned to be buried alive. Amneris begs for mercy, but the judges will not change their verdict. She curses the priests.

Aida has hidden in the vault to share Radamès’s fate. They express their love for the last time while Amneris, in the temple above, prays for Radamès’s soul.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

With two dozen operas behind him, Verdi was determined to retire to the life of a gentleman farmer. Fortunately for us, the Khedive of Egypt wanted a new opera to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal (and the new Cairo opera house) in 1871. Verdi refused the commission twice, despite the enormous fee that came with it and the suggestion that it might go to Gounod or Wagner (!) instead. What finally grabbed him was a four-page plot synopsis supposedly written by the Khedive himself, but actually the work of Auguste Mariette, leading French archaeologist and rediscoverer of Egypt’s great architectural antiquities. Struck by the story’s dramatic possibilities, Verdi had it expanded into a prose libretto by Camille du Locle and then gave it to Antonio Ghislanzoni to versify. Nonetheless, most of the credit for the final version belongs to Verdi himself, who in his impatience with his librettists set his own “dummy” lyrics to music and ultimately kept them. The scheduled premiere was delayed almost a year by the Franco-Prussian War, which prevented delivery of the French-built scenery. Finally, on Christmas Eve 1871 Aida bowed in Cairo to great acclaim. Verdi wasn’t there. Six months later he attended the Italian premiere at La Scala, Milan, for which he made revisions, among them the addition of Aida’s great aria O Patria Mia to open Act III.

Its vast choral and ballet episodes, picturesque historical settings, and mixture of love, religion, and politics place Aida firmly in — and nearly at the end of — the French “grand opera” tradition. Verdi’s concern for authenticity is evident in his use of valveless straight trumpets for the Triumphal Scene and his occasional employment of “Eastern” modes and scales, but there’s nothing imitative about the music. Its colorful orchestration and extended harmonic language brought accusations that Verdi was copying Wagner, which justifiably incensed him; he was a fiercely independent artist whose skill had grown consistently over the years. Nor did it end here. He dropped out again, but was lured back to the opera house a decade and a half later for Otello and Falstaff, works that surpassed even Aida in inventiveness.

Aida reflects Verdi’s anticlericalism and anti-authoritarianism. Priests are the bad guys.  Nationalism may be admirable, but oppressing other nations isn’t. The personal realm is truer and more important than the political. Still, we don’t go to Aida for ideas or arguments, but for full-throated melody, strong emotion, and thrilling spectacle. In the public imagination, Aida is what we mean by “opera.”