In 1869, as part of the inaugural celebrations for the opening of the Suez Canal, Khedive Ismail built an opera house in Cairo, a home for the arts in this great city. As I write in Song of the Nile:
The wooden building had been designed by two Italian architects, Avoscani and Rossi, as a small-scale replica of Milan’s La Scala. The blend of neo-classical columns and arches of its façade and the baroque and rococo interiors made it a beacon of Western aristocratic style.
Khedivial Opera House, 1869 (source)
The Khedive wanted to open this new arts venue with a fabulous new opera drawing on the ancient history of Egypt. He commissioned French archaeologist Auguste Mariette to come up with the concept, Italian librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni to write the libretto and Giuseppe Verdi to compose the music. Ultimately, the Franco-Prussian war made it impossible to transport sets and costumes for Aida from Paris in time for the opera house’s opening in 1869, and so Aida was first performed there in 1871.
The opera is set in Egypt during the period of the greatest power of the Pharaohs, and tells the story of the hopeless love between a slave, Aida, and an army general, Radamès.
Aida and Radamès are in love, but given their different stations, they must keep their love a secret. When the Ethiopians advance on Egypt, the king puts Radamès in charge of the army that will go to war. There’s just one problem: Aida is secretly an Ethiopian princess, daughter of King Amonasro, and so Radamès will be attacking her people.
Radamès’s men are victorious, and Ethiopian captives are brought before the king. Among them is Amonasro, the king of Ethiopia and Aida’s father. The King of Egypt is so pleased with Radamès’s victory on the battlefield that he names him his successor and declares that Radamès will marry his daughter, Amneris.
On the eve of the wedding, Aida and Radamès meet outside the Temple of Isis. Aida’s father, Amonasro, has tried to persuade her to get important military information from Radamès, and she is torn between her love for him and for her father and country.
Together, the couple hatch a plan to escape into the desert together. Radamès explains the safest route, away from where the Egyptian army will next attack. At this, Amonasro comes out from the hiding place where he has been eavesdropping, and Radamès realises he has shared military intel with the enemy. Then disaster strikes: Amneris comes out of the temple, sees Radamès talking to the enemy king and calls the guards. Radamès helps Aida and Amonasro to escape but is arrested himself.
Radamès is deemed a traitor and is sentenced to death: he is sealed in a vault and left there to die. But then he realises, he is not alone. Aida has hidden in the tomb. They will be together at last… in death.
For 150 years, this opera has moved audiences the world over to tears. It is one of the most popular operas and commonly features in the operatic repertoire.
It is not only the story and the stirring music that make Aida so special; the staging, including the set and the costumes, really make this a lavish and powerful spectacle. In Song of the Nile, Aida and Phares attend a performance of the opera at the Khedivial Opera House:
As the curtain rose to reveal a stage-set of such breathtaking authenticity that Aida had to stifle a gasp. The temples depicted on the backdrop were not today’s ruins, but had been restored to their initial glory. She had read in the theatre reviews how the set designers had made a careful study of the tombs and temples in Upper Egypt, wanting to reproduce them faithfully in every detail. Sitting comfortably in her box, her eyes roved over the sculptures and the paintings on the temple walls, the interiors rich with crimson hangings and golden brocade, and she found herself carried back four thousand years to the day when Isis and Osiris were the divinities of the land.
Song of the Nile: available to buy now
My own favourite performance of Aida was at the Roman amphitheatre in Verona. It is especially beautiful when staged at such a historic site; one is transported back to ancient times and cannot help but be swept up in all the emotions of the opera.
Aida at the Verona Arena (source)