Fittingly, the first performance of this wonderfully atmospheric opera was given in 1871 at an opera house in Cairo. The main plotline is about an Egyptian commander’s (Radames) love for an Ethiopian slave girl called Aida.
One of the most famous tenor arias, Celeste Aida.
Verdi received the commission for this particular opera from the khedive of Egypt, Ismai’il Pasha. He got a salary of 150,000 francs (almost $160,000 at today’s rates) in 1871 for the work. Unfortunately, the premiere was delayed by the Franco-Prussian war. The Khedivial Opera House opened not with Aida, but another Verdi opera, Rigoletto. The composer had been asked to write something for the Suez Canal opening, but declined.
Long been thought to be set in the Old Kingdom in Egypt, that time period is hard to confirm. Sets and costumes were made to look authentic for Aida’s premiere production. An Ethiopian princess, Aida, is taken into slavery when she arrives in Egypt. Military commander Radames, fights his loyalty to both pharaoh, and his love for her. A love triangle is formed when pharaoh’s daughter Amneris, falls in love with Radames – but he doesn’t return the feelings.
In the first scene of Act 1, a high priest, Ramfis, informs Radames that war with Ethiopia might be inevitable. The latter hopes he’ll be chosen commander of the operation and in a line from the opera, it’s expressed that “Yes, it is rumored that Ethiopia dares once again to threaten our power”.
In Act 2, scene 1, there are dances along with music to celebrate Radames’ victory. One line that the chorus sings is “Our songs his glory praising”. Amneris still doubts Radames’ love and believes that the slave girl Aida loves him as well. She pushes the doubt aside and attempts to lose herself in the dance of the Moorish slaves, where the chorus sings “Come bind your flowing tresses”.
In Act 3, the scene is set on the banks of the Nile, close to the temple of Isis, mother god of Egypt. Ramfis, Amneris and the chorus join in prayers with “O thou who to Osiris art…” This takes place on the night before the wedding of Radames and Amneris, in the same temple. Aida waits outside of the temple to meet with Radames as previously arranged by the couple. Aida sings “Oh, my dear country!”
Scene 1 starts in a hallway located in the hall of justice, close to Radames’ prison cell. Amneris, in the meantime, sings “My hated rival has escaped me”. She wants to save her hoped for lover Radames and ask that he be brought to her by a prison guard.
Aida has been adapted to the screen several times, because of its theatrical nature and lush settings. In 1953, Sophia Loren and Lois Maxwell starred. A Swedish production was mounted in 1987. In both films, the actors involved just lip-synched the vocals with genuine opera singers. In 1998, the story was used by Tim Rice and Elton John. They created their own music and didn’t use the Verdi original.
Links to more information on Aida: