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Love Triangles And Pyramids: Verdi's 'Aida'

<em>Aida</em> at the Maggio Musicale Festival in Florence.
Gianluca Moggi
Courtesy of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Aida at the Maggio Musicale Festival in Florence.

The exotic aura of ancient Egypt has been the magic ingredient in all kinds of entertainment, and in just about every genre the choices seem to run the gamut.

At the movies, Egypt has been the setting of everything from costume dramas such as Cleopatra to the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments to the adventures of Indiana Jones to various incarnations of The Mummy.

Music inspired by ancient Egypt ranges from Debussy's ethereal ballet score Khamma to "Walk Like an Egyptian" by The Bangles. And that's not to mention a whole string of tunes by a 1980s dance and rap artist billed as The Egyptian Lover or a dreamy number called "Meditation Music of Ancient Egypt," by new age specialist Gerald Jay Markoe.

But when it comes to music evoking the land of pyramids and pharaohs, there's no better place for it than the opera house — especially when you add a dose of passion to the mix. Handel wrote three operas set in Egypt, including Julius Caesar. Massenet chipped in with Thaïs, set in Alexandria. And Giuseppe Verdidid his part with one of the most popular operas of all time, the spectacular drama Aida — a score that was actually written for an Egyptian audience.

The history of Aida goes back to Ismail Pasha, who became the khedive of Egypt in 1863. Among his many dreams for the country was a new Cairo Opera House. It opened in 1869, with a performance of Verdi's Rigoletto. But Pasha thought his theater also deserved a brand new work by Verdi, who was arguably the most famous opera composer in the world.

Verdi wasn't eager to tackle a big new project in a faraway country, and he hesitated. When he eventually agreed, it was on his own terms, and he had plenty of them. Verdi demanded complete control of the production, the right to pick his own librettist and singers, and the right to oversee the project from his home in Italy by sending his personal representative to manage the production, conduct it and direct it. The composer also demanded a hefty fee, payable on delivery of the score. Opera openings were frequently delayed, but there would be no delay with Verdi's paycheck.

The premiere was postponed slightly, thanks in part to the Franco-Prussian War, and took place late in 1871, not quite a year behind schedule. Before long Aida was a hit all over the world. It premiered at La Scala in 1872. The next year, it reached Buenos Aires and New York City.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a new production of Verdi's blockbuster from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, with Zubin Mehta conducting. Soprano Hui He sings the title role, with tenor Marco Berti as her lover Radames and mezzo-soprano Luciana D'Intino as Aida's bitter rival, Amneris.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.