Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? A long-awaited premiere in nineteenth-century Cairo…
“We must at least keep the fee secret,” wrote Giuseppe Verdi in June 1870. “Someone would be sure to point out the 400 scudi for the Barbiere di Siviglia, Beethoven’s poverty, Schubert’s misery, Mozart’s roaming about just to make a living, etc., etc…”
He was writing to Camille du Locle, with whom he had worked on his previous opera, Don Carlos, about his latest project. Verdi had agreed to write Aida, an opera set in Ancient Egypt, to mark the opening of the Cairo Opera House–and he commanded an impressive fee of 150,000 lire. The Khedive of Egypt, a Verdi enthusiast, spared no expense to secure his services.
By 1870, Verdi was a hard man to please, and not just in terms of his fee. While he had been prolific earlier in his career, steadily producing hit after hit, his renown as well as his financial security later made him highly selective about which projects to take on. “The comparison with Puccini’s unproductive maturity is unmistakable,” writes Verdi scholar Roger Parker: the later composer, too, agonized endlessly over new concepts, and made life hell for his collaborators.
But when du Locle sent him the idea for Aida, Verdi was impressed. “It is well done; it offers a splendid mise-en-scene, and there are two or three situations which, if not very new, are certainly very beautiful,” he wrote. The drafted scenario had been written by Auguste Mariette, an Egyptologist who had founded the Cairo Museum. Though it clearly draws on Mariette’s knowledge of Ancient Egypt, the story itself is invented. Very artfully so—it contains so many classic operatic elements: a love triangle, divided loyalties, a dramatic, fatal conclusion…
… And, of course, plenty of opportunity for spectacle: “a splendid mise-en-scene” indeed. The Egyptian setting—among the pyramids, on the banks of the Nile—is perfectly suited to the lavish demands of grand opera, with that famous Triumphal March (above) a particularly grandiose set piece. Ancient Egypt also had a note of originality about it, and indulged the popular taste for the exotic.
It was a huge hit, and its popularity has continued, with three superb roles at its center: Radamès the lovestruck warrior, his love Aida the princess-in-disguise, and the jealous Amneris. But some aspects of Aida look awkward today: Verdi’s sinuous melodic writing and colorful, flute-heavy orchestration have by now become clichés of musical depictions of Egypt. Things must have seemed very different in the 1870s, though. Verdi was full of questions about the historical details on which the story was based, demanding information about Ancient Egyptian religion and royalty. And Mariette, a scholar, was on hand to offer expert views: on the costumes, for example, and also on the music. The mesmerizing chant in the Temple Scene (below) seems to have its origins in Mariette’s counsel.
Truly authentic? Probably not. Rather, like almost all operas, Aida thrives because of just how fantastical it is. Even today, it’s hard to resist its mixture of heady drama and exoticism. It’s easy to see why Verdi was so drawn to it. And not just because of the fee.