Your Guide to Verdi's AidaBy COC StaffPosted in 1920
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Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida in the COC's 2010 production of Aida
AIDA IN A NUTSHELL
An Intimate Drama...
Verdi was initially reluctant to take on this commission but was ultimately drawn to the character-driven drama and relationships in the story, which is reflected in the heartfelt and intimate arias and duets that punctuate the grand score.
...Wrapped in a Grand Italian Opera
Aida’s epic plot of warring nations and a tangled love affair was drawn from a scenario by famed French archaeologist to mark the opening Cairo’s new opera house. With its thrilling score and large chorus scenes, the opera draws much inspiration from the French Grand Opera tradition.
A Provocative Production Returns
Tim Albery’s production returns to the COC stage after a decade. It shattered expectations with its updated, politically charged approach, and emphasizes Verdi’s original intent to highlight the personal drama against the political.
Aida has rightfully earned its place amongst opera’s greatest hits. It has remained popular since its premiere in 1871 and is considered one of Verdi’s most celebrated works, alongside the likes of La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Il Trovatore. So it may be surprising to learn that Verdi was initially reluctant to take on this opera, nor did the path to its world premiere run smoothly.
Khedivial Opera House, 1869
In the mid-1800s, the allure of Ancient Egypt in the public imagination was at its peak, with the rise of modern Egyptology leading to many high-profile archeological discoveries, like the Rosetta Stone, since Napoleon's campaign in Egypt in 1798. The Suez Canal was also near completion, signifying Egypt’s arrival as a modern, cosmopolitan nation to the western world. Its opening festivities coincided with the construction of a new opera house in Cairo – the first in the Middle East. The ruling Khedive of Egypt (a noted opera fan who would later help fund Wagner’s theatre in Bayreuth) planned to mark the grand occasion with a new opera based on an Egyptian theme, and asked celebrity archaeologist August Mariette to come up with a plot for an opera based on his archeological findings. The scenario was later brought to Verdi by his Don Carlos librettist, Camille du Locle, who had fleshed out Mariette’s original idea. But Verdi was reluctant to take on the project, having already rejected an offer from the Khedive to write a new anthem for the festivities. After some convincing and du Locle’s persistence, he eventually relented, captivated by the moving story…or perhaps because the Khedive threatened to take his commission to Gounod or Wagner.
Verdi collaborated closely, as he was known to do, with librettist Antonio Ghislanzon (who also created the libretto for Verdi's La forza del destino). Ghislanzon took du Locle’s French scenario and turned it into an Italian libretto, and Mariette was hired to oversee the costume and set designs, which were inspired by Ancient Egyptian artifacts. The premiere was planned for January 1871, but external forces conspired to delay the production – the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War cut off communications and prevented the sets and costumes, which were being built in the French capital, from leaving the city. During this time, Verdi was able to continue tweaking the opera, even adding Aida’s famous “O patria mia” aria.
When the war ended, Aida finally received its long awaited premiere at the Khedivial Opera House on December 24, 1871, where it was met with rave reviews. Verdi did not attend because of his fear of sea travel, and considered the opera’s La Scala opening some months later to be its “true” premiere since the Cairo audience was filled with dignitaries, nobles and critics rather than the general public. Aida cemented its popularity after its Milan debut and the composer is said to have returned to the stage 32 times during curtain call encores. In an act of understatement, Verdi wrote after the premiere, “It's probably not the worst thing I ever wrote. The public seems to have loved it. I think it will fill any theatre."
From its opening notes, Verdi makes clear that Aida is a character-driven opera. While its large chorus scenes and majestic “Triumphal March” may steal the show, it is the more intimate arias and duets that form the opera’s heart. The opera opens with a short, intimate prelude, in lieu of the bombastic, full-scale overture one might expect. (It’s interesting to note that Verdi did compose such an overture, but it was only performed at the La Scala premiere as the composer ultimately rejected it.)
Aida also invokes conventions of the popular French grand operas of the time – historical events, epic scales and large casts – which is particularly evident in the first two acts with their grand public scenes and preoccupations with matters of state. But Verdi’s primary interest in exploring the private drama of his characters (as with his earlier hits, Rigoletto and La Traviata), as well as the intersection of the personal and political conflict, draws focus to the work’s more timeless themes of love and loyalty. This is perhaps best seen in the moving Act III sequence, beginning with Aida’s moving ode to her homeland, “O patria mia,” followed by a duet with her father who demands she save her people by betraying her lover.
Another aspect unique to Aida is the addition of specially constructed horns, played during the “Triumphal March” fanfare. These are longer and straighter than a traditional trumpet, with only one valve, and were designed to emulate how Verdi imagined Ancient Egyptian horns might sound. Presciently, when genuine Egyptian horns were discovered among the artifacts in Tutankhamun’s tomb more than 50 years later, they were similarly pitched to Verdi’s invention. The COC Orchestra is using six horns crafted by its very own musicians, bass trombonist Herb Poole.
A scene from the COC's 2010 production of Aida
AN AIDA FOR THE 21st CENTURY
For Aida’s premiere production in 1871, archaeologist August Mariette insisted on replicating real artifacts and locations for the opera’s sets and costumes in an effort to recreate an “authentic” Old Kingdom setting. To this day, many audiences associate Aida with the opulent productions reminiscent of a Cecil B. DeMille film. Amidst the spectacle, the intimate, character-based drama of Aida – which drew Verdi to the story to begin with – can often be overlooked. So when Tim Albery’s radical new take on Aida first appeared at the Canadian Opera Company a decade ago – with not a single elephant or pyramid in sight – it raised some eyebrows.
“Revisiting a production after some years is always interesting for a director, particularly when it’s been controversial with the audience,” says Albery on Aida’s return to the COC. “When we conceived this production, we were aware that, like in so many Verdi operas, it deals with an oppressed minority being controlled, ruled, attacked, invaded by a much bigger, powerful enemy, and we are in the home of that enemy throughout the opera.”
In place of golden temples and hieroglyphics, Albery envisions a contemporary, yet non-specific, time and place that could represent a number of the authoritarian regimes seen over the last few decades – Pinochet’s Chile, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or East Germany before the wall came down, to name a few. The opera begins in the public rooms of a palace – the great halls, the meeting rooms, the state apartments – and then begins a “descent down into hell” through the private, unseen spaces, before ending up in the basement tomb of Aida and Radames. The sets and costumes, with their “slightly tacky and vulgar” aesthetic recall the imagery – both in their public and private spheres – that’s become associated with many of those authoritarian figures. Notes Albery, “The cliché would be gold-plated taps in the bathrooms.”
All production photos by Michael Cooper.