Online opera guide and synopsis to Giuseppe Verdi’s AIDA
With “Aida” Verdi created one of the absolute highlights of opera history and offers the music lover everything opera can do. The popularity of the work is unbroken: Mass scenes like the Triumphal March thrill the general public, intimate scenes like the farewell of Aida and Radames touch the lover and opera fan.
♪ Act I (Palace-Scene, Tempel-scene)
♪ Act II (Victory-scene)
♪ Act III (Nile-scene)
♪ Act IV (Judgement-scene, Death-scene)
♪ Ciel mio padre (Nile duett)
♪ E in poter di costor io lo gettai (Urteils-Szene)
♪ O terra addio (Love death)
ROLES AND SYNOPSIS IN 4 MINUTES
Antonio Ghislanzoni, based on preparatory work by Camille du Locle and Edouard Mariette (possibly based on Metastasio's Nitteti)
THE MAIN ROLES
Aida, slave at the Egyptian court and daughter of Amonasro (soprano) Amonasro, King of Ethiopia (baritone) - Pharaoh, King of Egypt (bass) - Amneris, daughter of Pharaoh (mezzo-soprano) - Radames, Egyptian warrior (tenor) - Ramphis, chief of the priests (bass).
DECCA, Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers and Robert Merrill conducted by George Solti and the Choir and Orchestra of the Roman Opera.
The unusual history of origins
Verdi was almost sixty years old when he wrote Aida. He wanted to retire, but was asked by the Viceroy of Egypt to write an opera for the opening of the Cairo Opera House. Verdi then, to turn the request down, named an outrageously large sum of money, which was accepted to his surprise. The longer he worked on it, the more enthusiastic he became, until finally, together with Otello, it became perhaps his greatest work.
Verdi had little time for the composition of the opera, the delivery date was 1871. At the same time, authentic stage materials and costumes were produced under the supervision of Mariette. But the Franco-Prussian War thwarted all this, because the set produced in Paris was blocked and the performance had to be postponed for a year.
An unusual libretto
Of course, Verdi was not motivated by all the money, but it was Camille du Locle, the theater director of the Opéra comique and librettist, who subsequently sent Verdi textual and pictorial sketches. He found the support of the archaeologist Edouard Mariette, who ensured the authenticity and developed the idea of the plot. Verdi was very much taken with the idea and decided to set the work to music, which was very unusual, as he had in the past based his librettos on solid basic literature (Byron, Schiller, Voltaire, Dumas, Scribe…). In later years, it turned out that Mariette had possibly taken the idea from a rather little-known libretto by the late Opera seria master Metastasio, which could well have been known to the Orientalist Mariette. However, the proven librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni subsequently wrote the libretto with the energetic influence of Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi.
The “Tinta” of Aida
As always at the beginning of the compositional process, Verdi began by defining the so-called “Tinta musicale”, a few basic principles of setting to music.
An important basic principle of Aida was the “Varietà”, the contrasting of opposites. On the one hand there is the love relationship, embodied by Aida and Radames, on the other hand there is that of the power of state, embodied by the priests. This field of tension is complemented by the drama of Amneris. Verdi has developed motifs of remembrance that are repeatedly quoted. You will find the love motif and the priest motif in the section on the overture. In addition there are two motifs of Amneris.
Another aspect of the “Tinta” are the mass scenes. Verdi had an instrument developed especially for this, the so-called Aida trumpet, which we hear, for example, in the Triumphal March. Verdi deliberately used the mass scenes to create a contrast to the many lyrical scenes that we hear, for example, in the poignant duets between Radames and Aida.
A final aspect of the Tinta are the many duets. While we count a total of only three classical arias (“Celeste Aida”, “Ritorna vincitor” and “O patria”), Verdi wrote six duets, the most famous of which became the final duet “O terra addio”.
The high Bflat of “Celeste Aida”
An interesting conflict surrounds the end of “Celeste Aida”. Like Rossini, Verdi was not a follower of the thundering high C; on the contrary, with one exception, he never composed one for the tenor (in “La forza del destino” he wrote it for the tenor of the premiere, but later withdrew it). At the end of the aria “Celeste Aida” he wrote a B flat in piano, but over the decades it had become common practice among tenors to sing it in high B flat in forte to force the audience to applaud their entrance aria. Over time this became an audience’s expectation, as we can see from the following anecdote: “The famous tenor Carlo Bergonzi was not only an excellent tenor (Radames was one of his best roles), but also an excellent musician. So it was a matter of course for him to sing a B flat in piano at the end, but this was not always to the taste of the audience. Thus he had to experience in the Teatro Regio in Parma that the audience protested when he sang the final B of Celeste Aida in a difficult piano. He never entered this opera house again”. (Fischer, Grosse Stimmen).
There is an interesting story about the collaboration of the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the tenor Richard Tucker. Toscanini (1867-1957) knew Verdi personally. “At a young age, when he was already a respected Kapellmeister, he temporarily returned to his chair in the cello section of La Scala and took part as a cellist in the premiere of Verdi’s Otello (La Scala, Milan, 1887) under the composer’s direction. Verdi, who usually complained that conductors never seemed to be interested in conducting his scores as he had written them, was impressed by reports from Arrigo Boito about Toscanini’s ability to interpret his scores” (source: Wikipedia) When Toscanini conducted a performance with Tucker “…Toscanini insisted that the high B should be sung piano at the end, as Verdi, in his opinion, had intended. Tucker had difficulty with this, so Toscanini introduced a compromise solution: he had the tenor sing the B flat, then go down an octave and repeat the middle B in the piano.
Who was the best Aida?
This question has long moved people’s minds. Was it the Callas, Leontyne Price or the Tebaldi?
The role of Aida is difficult to sing. Throughout the opera, Aida has a high stage presence with long passages, which requires a great deal of stamina to master the many difficult passages, such as the exposed high C in the beautiful aria “O patria”.
Who was the best Aida? In the 1950s, the opera was recorded three times with these three great sopranos. Many gave their voices to Leontyne Price, who was described by the well-known critic John Steane as “the best Verdi soprano of the century”.
The anticlerical Verdi
What Verdi actually expressed both musically and dramatically is that behind the misfortune of the lovers and behind the throne as driving forces are the priests. Not the king is the true bearer of power, but the high priest. At all important turning points the high priest Ramphis makes the decisions. The final conversation between Amneris and Radames and the subsequent court scene of the fourth act, which ends with a solemn triumphal chant by the priests and simultaneously with their cursing by Amneris, can hardly be surpassed in emotional drama. It is said of Verdi that he hated the clergy and this comes out here.
The world premiere
Verdi was not among those present at the Cairo premiere on Christmas Eve 1872. The conductor of the performance reported to him by letter about the positive response of the audience. The Italian premiere a month later in Milan was an overwhelming success and the work was quickly performed on stages all over the world and remains one of the most popular works in opera history to this day.
AIDA ACT I
But this dream is opposed by the reason of state. After about 1 1/2 minutes the motif of the priests sounds, at first softly and then in a long crescendo more and more urgent:
Sinfonia – Abbado
Synopsis: Aida, the daughter of the Ethiopian king Amonasro is a slave at the Egyptian court. The Ethiopian warriors attack Egypt to free Aida. Radames dreams of returning to his secret love Aida wreathed in laurel from the fight against the Ethipians.
Verdi offers considerable difficulties to the role of Radames. The role is “lirico spinto”, i.e. a youthful heroic tenor. Radames must be able to sing both the great heroic arias and the lyrical piano passages. Right at the beginning, poor Radames must sing the great aria “Celeste Aida”, without warm up. Some tenors regard Celeste Aida as Verdi’s most difficult tenor aria.
The tenor voice must be able to withstand sharp trumpet sounds and keep up with the warmth of the woodwinds. He must also be confident in the high notes. The aria, another difficulty, starts unaccompanied by the orchestra. The aria alternates several times between the poles of battle (“un esercito di prodi, da me guidato”) and love (“Celeste Aida”). The love passages must be sung with much legato and sometimes in beautiful pianissimo.
Listen to Jussi Björling and Placido Domingo, two excellent interpreters of this role. Let’s start with Jussi Björling, described by many as the best Verdi tenor of the 20th century.
Se quel guerriero io fossi…Celeste Aida (1) – Björling
Se quel guerriero io fossi…Celeste Aida (2) – Domingo
The next interpretation is by Richard Tucker, perhaps the greatest American opera singer of the 20th century. He was born in New York as Reuben Ticker and began his vocal training as Chazzan (cantor). His breakthrough “came with the legendary performance of Aida, which was conducted by Arturo Toscanini, was recorded and became a legend. It was the first television opera to be broadcast worldwide (concertante)… This recording became famous with the finale of the Radames aria “Celeste Aida”. Toscanini insisted that the high Bb would be sung piano at the end, as Verdi, in his opinion, had planned. Tucker had difficulty with this, and Toscanini introduced a compromise solution: he let the tenor sing the B forte, then go down an octave and repeat the middle B in the piano.” (Fischer, grosse Stimmen)
Se quel guerriero io fossi…Celeste Aida (2) – Tucker
Bergonzi and the high B
Finally a fourth recording of Celeste Aida. Bergonzi was not only an excellent tenor (Radames was one of his parade roles), but also an excellent musician. So it was a matter of course for him to sing a B in the piano at the end, which was not always to the taste of the audience. So he had to “experience in the Teatro Regio in Parma that the audience protested when he sang the final B of Celeste Aida in this difficult piano passage. He never entered this opera house again.” (Fischer, big voices)
Celeste Aida (3) – Bergonzi
Synopsis: The priest calls on the Egyptians to resist the enemies. In a magnificent mass scene, the priest and the king whip the masses.
Una grande scena di coro con l’irresistibile inno degli egiziani guerrieri.
Su! del Nilo al sacro lido – Karajan
Aida’s inner Conflict
Synopsis: Aida is the slave of Amneris, the daughter of Pharaoh, who also loves Radames. She is torn between her love for her fatherland and Radames.
The excited recitative introduction, which testifies to her loyalty to her homeland, takes her voice to the high D flat. But shortly after, the love theme “e l’amor mio” sounds and the aria becomes a poignant plea to the gods for mercy. Yet, anticipating the future, not for the love of Radames, but for redemption through death.
Ritorna vincitor…Numi-o pietà – Price
Synopsis: A ritual of the priestesses takes place before the appointment of Radames as captain of the Egyptians
The exotic aria of the priestess «Possente Fhta» is a treat not to be missed. Teresa Stich-Randall is beautifully accompanied with harp and a heavenly choir under the direction of Arturo Toscanini.
Possente ftha – Toscanini/Stich-Randall
Nume custode vindice
Synopsis: In this scene Radames is solemnly appointed general of the Egyptians.
Listen to another wonderful passage with Jussi Björling «Mortale diletto ai numi… Nume custode vindice» an outstanding duet sung together with Boris Christoff, where the Swedish tenor outshines the choir with «incredible energy» (Kesting).
Mortal diletto ai numi… Nume custode vindice – Björling / Christoff
AIDA ACT II
The intrigue of Amneris
Synopsis: Amneris wants to find out if her slave Aida loves Radames. Amneris tells Aida that Radames has fallen. Aida in mourning confesses to Amneris her love for Radames. This confirms Amneris’ fears of Aida’s love for Radames. So the women face each other, Amneris is eaten away by jealousy and Aida mourns Radames (“Pieta ti prenda del mio dolor”). At the same time, the priests call on the people to fight against the invaders.
These three themes are impressively interwoven in the next two pieces.
Pieta ti prenda del mio dolor – Callas / Barbieri
Su! del Nilo al sacro lido… Numi, pietà – Callas et al
Triumphal march – Verdi’s tinta
Synopsis: The Egyptians can fend off the attackers. Amneris orders Aida to accompany her to the Victory Festival, where the celebration for Radames and his troops takes place.
Verdi invented the «Aida trumpet» for this opera from the Egypt of the Pharaons. It has a modern valve, which is historically untenable. Verdi said: «To reproduce the truth may be good, but to invent the truth is better, much better». For Verdi it was a stylistic device (the so-called «tinta musicale») to develop a characteristic image for an opera.
A highlight of the opera house visit is the Triumphal March with the Aida Trumpet. Hear and listen to this passage in a beautiful video from the Metropolitan opera.
Triumphal march – Abbado
Synopsis: The pharaoh has decided (as wished by Radames) that the captured attackers may return. Only Aida and Amonasro (the Ethiopian king disguised himself as an officer and is the spokesman for the prisoners) are held hostage. The pharaoh gives Radames as a reward his daughter Amneris as a wife.
AIDA ACT III
Synopsis: On the banks of the Nile. Amneris goes to the Nile to pray on the eve of the wedding. There Aida secretly waits for Radames. She longs for her fatherland.
O Patria mia is a melancholy aria sung in the mood of a full moon night on the Nile. The beginning is in a gloomy mood, for Aida fears she will never see her fatherland again. She slowly awakens from this mood until “l’ultimo addio”. A nostalgic oboe cantilena introduces the theme of the homeland. Images of her fatherland are evoked. Desperation manifests itself in the repeated repetition of the “mai piu”. In “che un di promesso” the voice becomes more intense and the next o patria is accompanied by an intense orchestra sound. At the end, “non ti vedro” again takes up the mood of the beginning, this time with wonderful high notes and accompanied by the oboe. The aria ends with a beautiful high pianissimo C.
Let’s start with Leontyne Price. Fischer describes her voice as follows: «As an actress on stage, Leontyne Price remained clichéd in gestures from old opera days. The thing she was great at was her phenomenal voice material and its artistic use. The often described guttural sound of afro american singers could not be found in her voice, but she possessed what the English language calls «smoky». She sang with two clearly separated voice colours: The extraordinarily lush middle range and the deep range, reminiscent of an alto, had that smoky character, the fluent high range sounded bright and clear, and remained unstrained to the highest regions.» (Fischer, Grosse Stimmen).
O patria mia (1) – Price
As a comparison we hear how Legge and Kesting describe the voice of Maria Callas: «Maria Callas possessed the sine qua non for a great career, namely the immediately recognizable timbre. The voice was voluminous and in the best years it had a range of almost three octaves, although the highest height was not always secured and the depth…did not have the power to hold notes. The sound quality was luxurious, the technical ability phenomenal. Callas actually had three voices, which she could colour at will: At first a high coloratura soprano, far-reaching and agile, bright and brilliant, but also, if she wanted, cloudy and opaque. Even with the most intricate fioritures she had no musical or technical problems to overcome. Her chromatic runs, especially down, glided smoothly along… The middle of the voice was dark and slightly shaded. It was her most expressive register in which she could exude the most fluid legato. Here she produces her own unique and highly personal sound, sometimes as if she were singing into a bottle».
O patria (2) – Callas
In 2017 Anna Netrebko made her debut in the role of Aida. The reviews from Salzburg and New York were excellent.
O patria (3) – Netrebko
Aficionados of older recordings are going to find a treat in the third recording with Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, a singer from the golden age. Listen how her voice glides to the high C (4:45), incomparable.
O patria mia (4) – Arangi-Lombardi
The great Nile duet
We come to the duet «Ciel…mio Padre».
Synopsis: Aida is waiting for Radames. Amonasro appears surprisingly and presses Aida to ask Radames the secret path of the Egyptian army. He sings about the beauties of Ethiopia and appeals to Aida’s sense of duty. Aida, torn between loyalty to the fatherland and betrayal of Radames, rejects.
Listen to two great great duets in this dramatic Nile scene. Beside Callas / Gobbi I have deposited the recording of the couple de Luca / Rethberg in the playlist for Aficionados.
Ciel…mio Padre (1) – Callas / Gobbi
Ciel…mio Padre (2) – Rethberg / deLuca
Synopsis: In the next scene Aida proposes Radames to flee with her to Ethiopia and they dream together of their future.
Kesting: This scene is one of the most exciting moments of Verdi’s singing. Björling not only sings with vibrating intensity, but forms the phrase “il ciel de nostri amori” – a high B – with a fragrant pianodolce.
The duet Aida-Radames
Synopsis: In the next scene Aida asks Radames to flee with her to Ethiopia.
With enticing sounds, accompanied by woodwinds, Aida tries to win Radames over to her plan. The result is a tenderly passionate duet between the two lovers, which ends with Aida’s voice floating away.
Kesting: “This scene is one of the most exciting moments of Verdi’s singing. Björling not only sings with vibrating intensity, but forms the phrase “il ciel de nostri amori” – a high B – with fragrant pianodolce.”
Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti – Björling / Milanov
Synopsis: Amonasro hears Radames tell the secret way. Amonasro steps forward and Radames realizes that he has unintentionally betrayed his fatherland. So Radames must flee. At this moment Amneris steps forward and accuses him of betrayal. Amonasro wants to kill her, but Radames prevents this, but is captured. Aida and her father escape.
In the next part we hear the fourth and last act of Aida. The highlight is “Terra Addio”, the love death of Aida and Ramades. A famous anecdote by Maria Callas awaits you as “dessert”, which can be experienced in the audio example.
AIDA ACT IV
Synopsis: Amneris offers Radames throne and marriage but Radames renounces.
This duet does not end lyrically, but with a great caballetta and orchestral beats that documents the outer drama of this fateful encounter of the two.
Gia i sacerdoti adunansi – Domingo / Cossotto
Amneris’ big judgement scene
Synopsis: He is sentenced to death by being walled in in the pyramid vault. Amneris tries in vain to summon the priests to avert the death sentence. She wants to die out of desperation because she herself has surrendered Radames to the court. The scene ends how she passionately curses the priests.
This scene is one of the great anticlerical indictments of Verdi. With great gesture Verdi depicts the drama of the unloved Amneris, accompanied by the court scene that takes place inside the temple.
Listen to Shirley Verrett in this great scene of the Amneris. It is a great musical and dramatic interpretation. Verrett has sung both soprano and mezzo. So she can sing the high parts of this scene wonderfully dramatic and impressive.
E in poter di costor io lo gettai – Verrett
O terra Addio – Aida’s great finale
Synopsis: Radames has been enclosed within the walls of the pyramid. He hears a sigh and notices Aida, who had crept into the vault. Aida and Ramades experience their farewell to the world together.
Verdi was well aware of the significance of this scene, which on the one hand forms the lyrical conclusion after the expressive preceding scene, but could also have been Verdi’s artistic swan song, if the Shakespearean dramas Othello and Falstaff had not unintentionally crossed his path 20 years leater in a miraculous way. For this grandiose scene he uses mainly muted strings and harps, which tenderly accompany the exquisite melody of the singing voices. The end of the duet is cross-faded by the voices of the priest choir and ends.
In this duet you will hear the top of the Verdi sing culture in these four recordings (only Maria Callas is missing in this group).
The duo Björling/Milanov offers an exciting ending.
O terra addio (1) – Milanov/Björling
Next we hear the duo Caruso/Gadski. Caruso sings with a dolorous tone and great beauty. Johanna Gadski (1872-1932) sings wonderfully too and the they sing together a beautiful dolcissimo ending.
O Terra addio (2) – Gadski/Caruso
Kesting (grosse Stimmen) even counts the Ponselle version, not least because of the heavenly singing Rosa Ponselle, among the great moments of Verdi singing. Rosa Ponselle (1897 – 1981), who is often mentioned by experts together with Maria Callas as the greatest soprano voice of the 20th century, offers great vocal artistry with this recording.
O terra addio 6:47 (3) – Ponselle/ Martinelli
Finally, two anecdotes. The first about Maria Callas.
The Case Callas vs Baum
Maria Callas was one of the great singers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, she could sing only in about 500 performances. To get an answer, the following story (quoted from Jürgen Kestings book, the greatest singer of the 20th century) might help: «On a tour…she did a performance of Verdi’s Aida. Her tenor partner Kurt Baum annoyed the other protagonists by sitting uninhibited on his high notes. They complained to the conductor. Callas remembered that the manager of the theatre had shown her an old score with an «Eflat» for the finale of the second act. She let herself get a «carte blanche» by the conductor and her colleagues and gave Baum the due lesson with a beacon-like, blazing top note, which literally shocked the tenor. Later, Mario del Monaco was her partner and rival during the performance on 3 July 1951. In the concertato of the second act you can hear a lion roaring for his life, whose voice is being buried in the sound masses of the choir – and then the E flat of the soprano penetrates the tumult, glowing and luminous like a white flame, but which dissolves the matter of which it consists. There is no voice that can survive such a tension without harm.
Hear Maria Callas in the Audio Section below «Callas vs Baum».
Maria Callas vs Kurt Baum
My recording recommendation of the opera Aida
DECCA with Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers and Robert Merrill under the direction of George Solti and the Choir and Orchestra of the Roman Opera.
An alternative is the recording with Placido Domingo, Katja Ricciarelli under the direction of Claudio Abbado (DG).
Another great alternative is the recording with Jussi Björling, Zinka Milanov and Leonard Warren.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on AIDA