Opera Scotland

Aïda

Music
Giuseppe Verdi (born Busseto, 10 October 1813; died Milan, 27 January 1901)

Text
Antonio Ghislanzoni.

Source
French text by Camille du Locle, adapted from an idea by the Egyptologist Auguste Mariette.

Premières
First performance: Cairo (Opera House), 24 December 1871.
First UK performance: London (Covent Garden), 26 June 1876.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 2 May1892
Scottish Opera première: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 15 September 1987.

Background
Aïda has always been one of the most popular of Verdi’s works. It was commissioned to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal and of the Cairo Opera House, both events happening in 1869. It has gained a reputation for grandeur of design and execution that is not entirely appropriate. While productions in grand locations such as the Verona Arena or the pyramids have a certain interest due to the spectacular site, most of the action is in fact quite intimate, and does not necessarily gain from the introduction of large numbers of extras or livestock.

The basis of the plot is quite traditional; firstly two women in love with the same man, and secondly the conflict between love and patriotic duty. Right from the early planning stage, Verdi was determined to employ as much local colour as he could, to make the opera as exotically different as possible. In this way he made the sound world of Aida very different from his previous operas and quite distinctive.

Main Characters
Ramfis, Egyptian High Priest (bass)
Radamès, a captain in the Egyptian army (tenor)
Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian King (mezzo-soprano)
Aïda, an Ethiopian slave in service to Amneris (soprano)
The King of Egypt (bass)
Messenger (tenor)
Priestess (soprano)
Amonasro, Ethiopian King, father of Aïda (baritone)

Plot Summary
Events take place in or near Memphis, capital of ancient Egypt. Aïda has been captured and attached to Amneris’s household. She and Radamès have met and fallen in love, though he is also loved by Amneris. A further phase of war commences, and Radamès is delighted to learn that he is to lead the Egyptian army.

The victorious Egyptian army returns. Amneris anticipates this with joy and tricks Aida into admitting she also loves Radamès. In the grand triumph scene that follows, Aida recognises her father, disguised, among the prisoners. Amonasro begs for mercy on behalf of the Ethiopians, and the crowd join in, supported by Radamès. The King then announces that Radamès will marry Amneris as his reward for victory.

Amonasro persuades Aïda to trick Radamès into revealing military secrets. They are overheard, and in a dramatic trial scene Radamès is condemned as a traitor. Amonasro having been killed, Aïda joins Radamès as he is buried alive, and Amneris is left alone to mourn.

RECORDINGS

SONY (2 bargain-price CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1955

Conductor: Jonel Perlea
Rome Opera Orchestra
Zinka Milanov (Aïda), Jussi Bjorling (Radamès), Fedora Barbieri (Amneris).

It may seem perverse with a work such as Aïda, which apparently demands the best possible sound quality, to recommend an elderly recording such as this. However, the performance really is very special indeed. Bjorling sings with a glorious golden tone which no tenor since has quite matched, and even at the end of career Zinka Milanov could still produce extraordinary soft high notes which are essential for any soprano attempting Aida. In addition to Barbieri, the cast also includes Leonard Warren as Amonasro, Boris Christoff as an implacable Ramfis, and Plinio Clabassi as the King.

DECCA (2 bargain-price CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1962

Conductor: Georg Solti Rome Opera Orchestra Leontyne Price (Aïda), Jon Vickers (Radamès), Rita Gorr (Amneris).

If there was a soprano in the next generation who could rival Milanov with soft high singing it was surely Leontyne Price, and this first recording of Aïda has plenty of atmosphere. Solti’s conducting may not be as subtle as some; Robert Merrill (Amonasro) and Giorgio Tozzi (Ramfis) may not be as impressive as Warren and Christoff; but Rita Gorr is a superb fire-eating Amneris, and Plinio Clabassi pops up again as the King.

OPUS ARTE (1 DVD) Sung in Italian Recorded 1994

Conductor: Edward Downes; Director: Elijah Moshinsky; Designer: Michael Yeargan
Orchestra of Royal Opera House
Cheryl Studer (Aïda), Dennis O’Neill (Radamès), Luciana d’Intino (Amneris).

This staging seems not to have pleased the punters at the Royal Opera House, and it was never revived. This is a pity, since it is a clever staging, and remarkably lacking in frills. The emphasis is all on the drama, and all the better for that. The solo artists all have markedly lighter voices than those on display half a century ago, but that seems to be an inevitable trend today. In any event Studer and O’Neill both sing beautifully. Amonasro is sung by Alexandru Agache, and Ramfis and the King by two sterling basses, Robert Lloyd and Mark Beesley. Edward Downes never conducted any complete operas in the studio, which seems utterly bizarre. However he was a masterly Verdi conductor and fortunately several of his performances at Covent Garden have been preserved on DVD.

 

The Cast

Aïda
 an Ethiopian slave
Amneris
 daughter of the King of Egypt
Amonasro
 King of Ethiopia and father of Aïda
Dancer
 
King of Egypt
 
Messenger
 
Priestess
 
Radamès
 Captain of the Guard
Ramfis
 High Priest

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