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.
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
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.
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