Verdi and the Composition of Aida

After working with Verdi on the libretto for Don Carlos [see the Don Carlo articles in Operapaedia] for the Paris Opéra, Camille du Locle tried in vain to interest the composer in another project for the French capitol. Verdi would have none of it. His experience with the Opéra was an unpleasant one overall and he considered any kind of a return tantamount to a death wish. But du Locle persisted, sending the composer a number of possible ideas for operatic treatment. The only one that seemed to inspire Verdi was a synopsis of an opera set in ancient Egypt based on a story by Auguste Mariette. Mariette was an important Egyptologist who lived in Cairo and was an intimate of the Khedive who was busy at the time building the Suez Canal. (Mariette, originally an employee of the Louvre, was sent to Egypt to discover and catalogue Coptic manuscripts but in his explorations stumbled upon some of the most spectacular discoveries of the 19th century, including the Temple of Serapis and the tombs of the Apis bulls). Mariette suggested to the ruler that an opera be commissioned from a famous composer (Verdi, Gounod and Wagner were suggested, in that order) to celebrate this monumental achievement. The task was given over by Mariette to du Locle who had marital connections to the administrator of the Paris Opéra. (Mariette also hoped for a return to visit France with his family and he pushed du Locle to complete the deal).

Verdi finally accepted the proposal of Aida after it was threatened that the commission might be offered to Wagner! Du Locle wished to make Aida a French grand opera (and it does, indeed, resemble some of the better forms of that genre, at least structurally) and offered his libretto in French, but Verdi insisted that it be translated into Italian and he chose another Don Carlos collaborator, Antonio Ghislanzoni, to provide that translation as well as some additions to the libretto itself. However, it seems that Verdi himself was as involved in the production of this libretto as in any other of his operas.

The oft-repeated stories that Aida was written for the opening of the canal or that it was written for the premiere of the Cairo Opera House are both incorrect. Du Locle’s synopsis of the story wasn’t received by Verdi until after the canal was completed, and the opera house had opened even earlier! It may well have been the Khedive’s original intention to have an opera celebrate the canal, but it certainly didn’t work out that way. And, in fact, the original date of the performance Aida in Cairo (January, 1871) had to be postponed because the scenery was stuck in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war and nothing was being shipped in or out of the country. The premiere ended up being eleven months late, finally occurring on Christmas Eve, 1871.

The Italian premiere of Aida took place on February 8, 1872 with the great soprano Teresa Stoltz in the title role. The opera was enthusiastically received both in Cairo and Milan. Some of the critics actually accused him of using some Wagnerian techniques, an accusation he dismissed as pure hogwash.

The Libretto of Aida

To this day there is considerable confusion over what the actual source of Aida was. Was that original synopsis written by Mariette himself? By the Khedive? By the Khedive with help from Mariette? Did Mariette steal the synopsis from his brother Eduoard who had begun a novel entitled La Fiancée du Nil?

Mariette did indeed send a synopsis of the Egyptian story to du Locle who passed it along, with four or five other prospects, to Verdi. But Verdi was evidently never completely clear as to the story’s provenance. Nine years after the premiere in Cairo a controversy over the source of the libretto boiled over in Milan’s musical press. Du Locle wrote a public letter insisting on Mariette’s authorship. In the midst of this Verdi wrote to du Locle: “I’m utterly taken aback. I think you will remember yourself that you sent me four little printed pages without any author’s name; you told me that the Khedive would like an opera on that subject because it’s an Egyptian one. I supposed that the author of those pages was the Khedive himself. All I knew about Mariette Bey was that he had been commissioned to look after the costumes, etc.”

As if this wasn’t enough, Auguste Mariette’s brother Edouard joined the fray, accusing his own brother of having plagiarized the synopsis from his unfinished novel, La Fiancée du Nil. More recently, writer Matteo Glinski suggested in 1954 that the entire story was based on a libretto by Metastasio, the great eighteenth century poet who essentially defined the opera libretto for many generations of Italian composers. The work was called Nitteti and it was set to music by no fewer than 13 composers. Verdi scholar Julian Budden dismisses this theory as “the reddest of herrings” but a complete description and argument in favor of this theory can be found in Charles Osborne’s The Complete Operas of Verdi. At this point the jury is still out, but Osborne’s drawing of parallels between Aida and Nitteti makes for interesting reading.

Budden points out that the love triangle is so common a plot in opera that many different sources could have inspired its story, as it is nothing more than that rather creaky plot placed within the context of a culture that had sparked the imagination of nineteenth century audiences, especially in Italy and France where many of the spoils of Egyptian exploration had been rudely and permanently ensconced.

One very interesting point is made by Budden in his brilliant three-volume study, The Operas of Verdi. Although Mariette’s synopsis is incredibly rich in theatrical detail, “…for all his insistence on correctness of dress and appearance, [he] was not a great stickler for accuracy in matters of custom. His original synopsis is full of anachronisms and historical impossibilities: the Pharaohs always commanded their armies themselves [therefore no need for the character of Radames!], never attacked by surprise [hence making the great conflict about Egypt’s secret plans between Aida and her father null and void!], never erected triumphal arches [rendering the Triumphal Scene unnecessary!] and never worshipped the god Vulcan [erase all references to Phta!!].” Budden concludes, “Fortunately such solecisms are for the Egyptologist rather than the music-lover to worry about.” —The bracketed comments are by the author of this article, Nicolas Reveles

The Music of Aida

Aida would have been impossible had it not been for Verdi’s experience of writing Don Carlos for the Paris Opéra. Aida is essentially a French grand opera in the Meyerbeer tradition, but sung in Italian. It has all of the French hallmarks: a huge chorus and orchestra, brilliant instrumental effects, a tendency toward the ‘exotic’, an integral approach to ballet, a larger number of principal roles and a dual approach to musical style that is both ‘intimate’ and ‘grand’. But unlike Don Carlos, Aida is one of those works that looks backward rather than forward. It is one of Verdi’s more conservative efforts with ‘numbers’ and musical pieces that are closed (i.e., a clear beginning and ending; a ‘closed’ aria could easily be excerpted in a recital without damage to its structure). That is not to argue that Aida is an inferior work in Verdi’s canon; it is simply more in the spirit of Il trovatore than Rigoletto or La traviata, emphasizing more traditional operatic forms.

The glory of Aida is to be found in its melody which spills out of every page of the score. The Prelude itself is based on two melodic ideas which instantly inspire the ear. The first, so quietly played by the violins in the first bars of the piece, is associated with the character of Aida herself. The second, a descending scale passage with a darker color, is later associated with the priestly caste which eventually condemns Radames, the Egyptian Captain and war hero. It is this second melodic idea that eventually leads to a statement by the full orchestra at the center of the Prelude, reiterating the Aida theme. This is a perfect example of how the entire opera works musically; one moment we hear exquisitely intimate music, the next we are nearly in Wagner territory with the entire orchestra blaring away ferociously.

One need only point to the most famous moments in Aida to show Verdi’s melodic gifts in full swing: Radames’ opening aria “Celeste Aida”, Aida’s brilliant exit scene/recitative/aria “Ritorna vincitor!”, the ritual opening of the second scene in Amneris’ apartments with its haunting prayer to Phta by the High Priestess, the brilliant succession of memorable melodies in the Triumphal Scene including the march and ballet, and certainly the beautiful duet “O terra addio” at the end of the opera which sends audiences away humming.

Critics occasionally mumble their disappointment in the musical characterization of the two main characters, who admittedly do not change at all during the course of the drama. They are archetypal figures, two lovers against an unbending world, something that we’ve seen in opera way too many times to count! But look to Amneris for true characterization and fascinating growth of character. Like Azucena and Eboli before her, Princess Amneris is the dynamic force in this opera who moves from suspicion to love to jealousy to despair, and whose music matches those changes in mood perfectly.

One of the great achievements of this opera is Verdi’s use of local color, a touch of the exotic throughout, and this is truly something from the French tradition. From the moment the Prelude begins we know intuitively that we’re in a different world, a far-off, ancient and exotic world. With brilliant touches of instrumental timbre we’re kept in that world, caught up in it; and we exult in it. As is pointed out in the excellent Grove Dictionary article about the opera, Aida is virtually impossible to set in any environment other than ancient Egypt. Verdi did such an incredible job of particularizing the music to that place and time that to move it to any other world would be impossible. He has re-created the world of ancient Egypt so clearly, so concisely and with such imagination that to reference the work visually in any other way would be to destroy it.

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