Opera in my Pyjamas: Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (1871)

A wet and windy Saturday morning provided the perfect excuse to curl up in front of an opera, and this time I decided to go with one of the acknowledged masterpieces of the great anti-Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Aida.

aida-acrobats
Triumphal March with acrobats. Because acrobats are cool.

Commissioned for the new opera house in Cairo in 1870, Aida was first performed in 1871. Set in Ancient Egypt against the background of ongoing military conflict between Egypt and the rival kingdom of Ethiopia, the story centres on the tragic romance between a captured Ethiopian princess, Aida, and the captain of the Egyptian guard, Radames. To be on the safe side I will at this point state that slavery, and specifically the enslavement of Black (Ethiopian) Africans, is central to the plot, and anyone who finds this distressing should probably avoid this opera and the rest of this post, which will include a plot summary.

Unlike Wagner, Verdi went in for Spectacle, big time. Aida features a massive cast (although that could be in part because the version I was watching was put on by Bob Jones University and needed to find parts for as many people as possible), a plethora of arias, duets and ensemble pieces, a parade, several ballets and (again, I don’t know if it was just the version I was watching or not) two acrobatic displays because hey, acrobatics are cool! The music is loud, proud, and still running through my head twenty-four hours later, and the costumes and set did justice to the score. In other words, it was visually and aurally interesting.

As I said earlier, the plot centres around the doomed romance of the enslaved princess Aida and the Egyptian warrior Radames. Aida has been made a handmaiden to the Egyptian princess Amneris, who is also in love with Radames. Suspecting that Aida is her rival, Amneris tricks Aida into revealing her feelings by telling her that Radames has been killed leading the Egyptians in battle against the Ethiopians. It’s untrue, and when Radames returns victorious with plunder and prisoners the Pharaoh offers him anything he desires as a reward.

aida-indra-thomas
Indra Thomas as Aida in another production of Verdi’s opera.

Radames had planned on asking for Aida, whom he hoped to restore to her own people and see crowned as a queen. However, seeing how distraught Aida is over the plight of the prisoners, which include her father, King Amonasro, he instead asks Pharaoh to release the captives. Against the advice of his priests and people Pharaoh does so, but retains Amonasro and Aida as hostages in a bid to prevent future raids. He then offers Radames a further reward, the hand of his daughter Amneris in marriage.

On the night before the wedding, Aida awaits a secret meeting with Radames but is interrupted by her father who convinces her to trick Radames into revealing the Egyptian plan of attack. Aida convinces Radames to run away with her, but then asks which road they should take to avoid the Egyptian army. When Radames tells her, Amonasro’s cry of victory alerts him, and Amneris, who is also listening nearby, to the betrayal.

In the final scene, Radames is sentenced to death as a traitor and walled up alive in a crypt under the Temple of Vulcan (yes, I know, Roman, not Egyptian – this isn’t a documentary we’re dealing with), where he discovers Aida, who is determined to die with him rather than live without him. As the priests sing a death-chant and Amneris weeps in remorse the lovers die in one another’s arms.

aida-final-scene
Better to die with you than live without you.

Although this was a university production, which cut a scene in the first act for time, it was still pretty well done. The only really obviously amateur bits were the ballets, and they featured kids which can get away with this sort of thing by being cute. The role of Aida was sung by Indra Thomas, a professional opera singer who has sung the role of Aida numerous times. She also happens to be African-American, which adds a bit of visual authenticity to her playing an African princess (although Opera is hardly hung up on minor details like how people look). Tenor Clay Hilley sang the role of Radames, and Mary Phillips played Amneris. The Bob Hope University Orchestra was conducted by Steven White. For a full programme, you can click here.

All in all, if Aida is anything to go by, Verdi is definitely more to my taste than Wagner.

Have you seen Aida? What did you think? Did I miss much with Radames’ temper armour scene?

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2 thoughts on “Opera in my Pyjamas: Verdi’s ‘Aida’ (1871)

  1. I am a great lover of visual spectacle more than I am of spectacular sounds. I have listened to the Opera many times and play bits such as the ‘Triumphal March’ and ‘Celeste’ now and then but have never seen it. I have read in detail about how it was performed in the early days with pools of crocodiles, camels, elephants etcetera, all in an arena and thought how wonderful it must be. When I lived in Spain, a production was planned at Mijas Racecourse on the Costa del Sol. It promised a huge cast with special cinematic effects that would create what it must have been like at the original Cairo Opera. Unfortunately the company that were organising this, did a bunk with everyone’s ticket money and I am still waiting to see it.

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  2. Wonderful description of “Aida”, it was fun to read it summed up so neatly. The march was one of the first opera melodies I could not get out of my head! I haven’t seen the opera yet though.

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