When, in the summer of 1869, plans were being put in place to mark the inauguration of Cairo’s new opera house, its director Draneht Bey had a grand idea: why not ask the great Giuseppe Verdi to write a celebratory hymn to accompany the occasion? Thanks, replied the Italian composer, but no thanks.


What's the story behind Verdi's Aida?

Verdi’s curiosity had evidently been piqued, however. Within months he was immersing himself in the composition of a much larger work to be performed at the Khedivial Opera House, itself built in the Egyptian capital to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal. Planned for January 1871, the four-act opera Aida would take ancient Egypt as its setting, its plot based on a novel by the eminent French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. With due diligence, Verdi set about his studies of Egyptian customs, religion and music, while Antonio Ghislanzoni was called upon to provide the libretto.

The initial idea for Aida had come from Mariette, who believed his story would work well in operatic form. He also had a very handy contacts book that included Camille du Locle, the influential theatre manager and co-librettist of Verdi’s Don Carlos, and the Khedive Ismail Pasha, a ruler with big ambitions and deep pockets – the enormous fee offered to Verdi for Aida did not go unremarked upon in the composer’s correspondence.

Not all went to plan, however. While the Khedivial Opera House successfully opened its doors in November 1869 with a production of Rigoletto, events in Europe meant that its own Verdi commission would not be arriving any time soon. When Mariette visited Paris to consult with Verdi and Du Locle in the summer of 1870, France was heading headlong into the Franco-Prussian War. By the scheduled premiere date the following January, Prussian victory was now inevitable, but the Cairo production’s scenery and costumes were still stuck in storage in the besieged French capital. Given that plans were already in place to stage Aida at La Scala immediately after its Cairo performance, the Khedive now started to get twitchy: might there even be a danger of his premiere getting superseded? Verdi assured him this would not happen.

When was Verdi's Aida first performed?

And the composer was good to his word. When, on 24 December 1871, Giovanni Bottesini lifted his baton for Aida’s debut, it was in Cairo, not Milan. Singing the title role on that occasion was soprano Antonietta Anastasi-Pozzoni, while tenor Pietro Mongini took the part of her lover Radamès.

La Scala’s Aida duly followed on 8 February 1872, with Verdi himself there to enjoy the audience’s lavish applause – he had chosen not to travel to Egypt for the premiere, joking that he feared being ‘mummified’. Ever the political animal, the composer doubtless hoped that his Italian audience would spot that words sung by Ramfis, High Priest of Egypt – ‘Victory is ours because God is on our side’ – were exactly those that had been spoken in triumph by King William of Prussia only months earlier.

Nearly 150 years on, Aida remains as popular as ever. Don’t go planning a visit to the Khedivial Opera House, however – destroyed by fire in October 1971, it has been replaced by a multistorey car park. Where Egyptian commanders once marched in triumph and Ethiopian slave-girls sang of their woes, today you’ll hear only the revving of engines and the screeching of tyres.

Recommended recording: Verdi: Aida by Jonas Kaufmann, Erwin Schrott, Antonio Pappano, Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Anja Harteros, Ekaterina Semenchuk

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