Written by: Alexander Campbell
The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.
Who wrote it?
Time was when Verdi’s Aida was considered the absolute epitome of what Grand Opera was about – exotic location, huge forces, dancers and (it was assumed) wild animals – not to mention some amply endowed and voiced singers. Yes, animals aside, the shortish final scenes of the first two Acts are demanding of resources, but elsewhere the opera is more intimate than is often assumed.
Aida was commissioned for the opening of the Cairo opera house built in 1869 as part of the celebrations for the new Suez Canal. In the event logistical issues relating to the scenery and costumes becoming trapped in Paris owing to the Franco-Prussian war the opera was not performed in the Cairo theatre until two years later. Verdi did get the premiere opera there nonetheless – a production of Rigoletto. Sadly, the Cairo house no longer stands.
Verdi’s librettist was Antonio Ghislanzoni, who fashioned the Italian libretto, basing it on French prose penned by Camille du Locle with input from the composer. He and du Locle had worked together on Don Carlos. Their French version of Aida was itself an elaboration of an invented scenario, set in Egyptian antiquity, devised by the archaeologist/Egyptologist August Mariette, himself instrumental in the commissioning of the new opera house.
The initial Cairo performances of Aida, and its subsequent staging at La Scala, were huge successes, but in the last few decades productions have become fewer, largely owing to financial resources needed for a spectacle to satisfy expectant audiences, but also one suspects owing to the paucity of great Verdian voices able to do justice to the hugely demanding principal roles.
What’s it about?
Egypt and Ethiopia are locked in a brutal war. The Ethiopian princess Aida has been captured and has become a slave to the jealous and imperious Egyptian princess Amneris; luckily her own royal status is unknown. Amneris is in love with Radamès, a young and ambitious captain of the Egyptian army, but to her annoyance he seems resistant to her charms; he loves Aida.
Ramfis, leader of the high priests, announces the gods have selected Radamès to lead the Egyptian forces against Ethiopia. Aida is torn between love for the man who should be her enemy, and love for her country. Suspecting Aida is Radamès’s lover, Amneris tricks her into declaring her love for the captain, and almost into revealing her true identity.
The Egyptian forces return triumphant and the Pharaoh awards Amneris to Radamès as bride. Radamès makes a plea to the Pharaoh to free the slaves, but the priests and peoples demur. Then one captive prisoner states he saw the Ethiopian king fall in battle; in reality he is Amonasro, Aida’s father. They are reunited, though Amonasro demands Aida keep their identities secret. He then applies emotional and patriotic pressure on Aida to trick Radamès into revealing the next manoeuvres of the Egyptian forces as he plans an ambush.
Reluctantly Aida complies, but as she and Radamès plan to flee they are interrupted by Amneris and Ramfis. Aida and Amonasro escape but Radamès is arrested. At trial, despite Amneris’s pleas for clemency, he is condemned to die by being enclosed alive in a tomb. Amneris rails against the priesthood and curses them. Whilst waiting death, Radamès finds Aida concealed in the tomb and they die together, as Amneris mourns her loss in the temple above ground.
Look out for…
Many parts of this opera are justly famous – march, ballet, grandness. Elsewhere Verdi shows much innovative scoring – the sultry evening by the river at the start of the third Act is particularly evocative. The principals all get some fabulous arias. The tenor singing Radamès has the first star turn with ‘Celeste Aida’, with a soft B-flat finish, assuming the tenor attempts it! Elsewhere he has the chance to demonstrate heroics, but in the final Act the ability to sing softly and lyrically is a must.
Aida also has some fiendishly difficult and celebrated arias, and the role of Amneris is a gift of a part for a dramatically inclined mezzo-soprano, one of the great roles of its type. Her big scene is at the start of the final Act where she implores Radamès to defend himself, and when she then vents her fury at the implacable priests. This culminates in a thrilling curse. Amonasro, sung by a baritone, has two important moments, and the bass role of Ramfis is also a pivotal presence.
Who’s in it?
There is keen anticipation for the Aida of Anna Netrebko, her first for the Met. Her rich velvety voice and secure technique should make her a natural for this role. Opposite her as Amneris is Anita Rachvelishvili – a singer with dramatic temperament to match – expect fireworks! As Radamès the Met has cast the clarion-voiced Aleksandrs Antonenko, whilst Quinn Kelsey takes on Amonasro. Nicola Luisotti conducts this revival of Sonja Frisell’s monumental and traditional production.
When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at the Met itself. Otherwise it is broadcast to cinemas on October 6.