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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Aida - Opera in four acts (1871)
Il Re, King of Egypt – Mark Beesley (bass); Amneris, his daughter - Luciana d’Intino (mezzo); Radames, Captain of the Guard - Dennis O’Neill (tenor); Amonasro, King of Ethiopia and Aida’s father, Alexander Agache - (baritone); Aida, his daughter - Cheryl Studer (soprano); Ramfis, High priest – Robert Lloyd (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Edward Downes
Stage Director: Elijah Moshinsky.
Set and Costume Designer: Michael Yeargan
Television Director: Brian Large
rec. 27 June, 1 July 1994, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Picture format: 16:9 Anamorphic. Audio formats: PCM Stereo.
Menu language: English. Sung in Italian (original language) with English subtitles


Experience Classicsonline

In the summer of 1870 Verdi wrote to his publisher Ricordi ‘Towards the end of last year I was invited to write an opera for a distant country. I refused’. His friend, Camille Du Locle raised the matter again and Verdi continued ‘I was offered a large sum of money. Again I refused. A month later he sent me a sketch. I found it first rate and agreed to write the music’. The distant country was Egypt, where the Khedive was anxious to have an opera on an Egyptian theme for the new Opera House built in Cairo to celebrate the opening in the Suez Canal in November 1869. He also wanted Verdi, the foremost opera composer of his day, albeit the great man had not composed a new opera for four years and had retired to his home in Sant’ Agata. Verdi turned the request down, repeating his refusal when in Paris the following spring. Du Locle was not deterred and sent Verdi a synopsis by Mariette an Egyptologist in the employ of the Khedive. Stimulated by the synopsis, and also, perhaps, that Du Locle had been authorised to approach Gounod or Wagner if he continued to prove reluctant, Verdi wrote to Du Locle on 2 June 1870 setting out his terms. These stipulated his control and ownership of the libretto, and that he, Verdi, retained all rights except for performances in Egypt. He also stipulated a fee of 150,000 Francs, payable at the Rothschild Bank in Paris on delivery of the work. Mariette on behalf of the Khedive accepted these terms within a week. The fee made Verdi the highest paid composer ever.

Throughout the process of composition Verdi was keen to achieve the greatest historical accuracy. He asked Du Locle to gather information from Mariette about the sacred dances of the Egyptian priestesses. Verdi was intent on a Grand Opera of spectacle and ballet as though he were writing for the Paris Opéra. Aida was ready for premiere in January 1871, but the designs and costumes were held up in Paris by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war and it didn’t reach the stage until 24 December 1871. It was Verdi’s twenty-sixth opera, only two more new works would follow and the first of those after a gap of sixteen years. A production of Aida followed at La Scala on 8 February 1872. The first UK performance was at Covent Garden on 22 June 1876. 

Aida is now one of Verdi’s most popular operas with its blend of musical invention and dramatic expression. It is, as Verdi intended, a work of pageant from its opening scene through the Grand March (Gloria all’Egitto Ch.15) and the trial scene (Chs. 25-28). As there would be in Paris, there are ballet interludes and dances (Chs 13 and 16). Aida is also a work involving various interpersonal relationships. Of these relationships, the rivalry between Aida, daughter of the King of Ethiopia working incognito as a captured slave of Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt, is intense. Both love Radames, victorious leader of the Egyptian army. He loves Aida but is given the hand of Amneris in reward for his exploits as victorious commander (Ch.19). Even more complex is the relationship of Aida with her father, Amonasro, who arrives as an unrecognised prisoner. Many and various complex possibilities of father-daughter relationship occur throughout Verdi’s operas, but nowhere more starkly than in this opera where the father puts tremendous emotional pressure on his daughter to cajole her lover into betraying a state secret (Ch.22). This betrayal will cost the lives of the two lovers.

In some productions the grandeur of the setting and pageantry overwhelms the dramatic interactions and relationships of the individuals. Whilst not of the minimalist variety staged by Robert Wilson, and dominated by his experience of Noh Theatre (see review), this production’s sets and costumes seem intent on playing down the pageant and the Egyptian influences on the opera. Wilson’s production was imported to Covent Garden for performances in November 2004 and played to a derision that bordered on revolution in some parts of the House. As someone who saw a revival of an earlier Covent Garden production by Peter Potter, in sets by Nicholas Georgiadis, in 1972, when the eye and the ear were regaled, not least by Grace Bumbry as Amneris in her London debut, this mess missed the boat by a mile. Largely devoid of sets, and with costumes of indeterminate nationality or period, there was no sign of pageant nor even a passably evocative Nile Scene (Chs. 20-24); even Robert Wilson managed that. Entries were often up a slope from the back of the stage. As to a triumphal march there was little sight. The Ethiopian prisoners were in a cage that collapsed and was lifted away after Radames’ plea to the King for clemency on their behalf. A large front drop with vague patterns is raised and lowered, narrowed or widened for the different scenes. For Amneris’s boudoir there were elliptical hanging curtains from the ceiling. They added little to the intimacy of the location which is central to the confrontation between the women as Amneris tempts Aida into revealing her love for Radames by first saying he is dead and then revealing that he is alive (Chs 9-11) at which point Aida betrays her feelings.

This recording was made in the period preceding the closure of the Theatre for major refurbishment. It was a period of low morale there. It was also a period when major singers of Verdi had become thin on the ground - a situation that continues. As Radames, the Welsh lyric tenor Dennis O’Neill did his best to sound as if his voice was bigger than it was. It would have helped production, his expression and overall characterisation had he looked at Aida in the tomb scene and elsewhere (Ch. 29) rather than at the conductor. This was a failing also of Alexander Agache as Amonasro. He has a voice of power and variety of colour ideal that is for the part. Regrettably he did not, or was not sufficiently inspired to enter into the Verdian spirit. His hairstyle and costume didn’t help either. Robert Lloyd as Ramphis was the only member of the cast who was convincing as singer and actor. His sonorous bass was expressive and his interpretation and characterisation first class. Mark Beesley as the King of Egypt was lacking vocally in the very strengths exhibited by Lloyd. Looking more like Amneris’s son than her father did not help dramatic conviction. Cheryl Studer as Aida sang adequately without much involvement whilst Luciana d’Intino tried her best to inject some passion into the proceedings as Amneris, but rolling eyes are no substitute for living a role on stage.

Perhaps the biggest sadness for me with this mid-price set is that neither television director, Brian Large, nor Edward Downes in the pit, was on form. Downes, a Verdi conductor of the highest class, seemed unable to inject any vitality let alone frisson into the proceedings. Brian Large, without equal in his field, faced with a lack of visual settings except for a few banners and figures on poles, too often focused on close-ups of singers. Double chins and angular jaws are not pretty, particularly on repeat sightings. Apart from the ill-considered import of Robert Wilson’s production in 2004, this 1994 series of performances was, to the best of my knowledge, the last of Aida seen at Covent Garden. Given the position of the Theatre in the world of opera, this is a disgrace. Despite the dearth of Verdi voices, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, seem to put on performances each season in a well run-in production of pageantry and clear Egyptian lineage. My own favourite, for a grand setting and magnificent singing, is the 1991 recording from the Met with Domingo as Radames, Aprille Millo in good voice as Aida and Dolores Zajick a magnificent Amneris (DG 0730019). A good second bet for Pavarotti fans is that from San Francisco with Margaret Price as Aida in Sam Wanamaker’s production. Brian Large on top form directs both for video.

Robert J Farr


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