Aida: Program Notes cover

Aida: Program Notes


Aida is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Set in Egypt, it was commissioned by and first performed in Cairo on 24 December 1871; Giovanni Bottesini conducted after Verdi himself withdrew. Even today, the work holds a cherished place in the operatic canon, and is performed every year around the globe.
This is the first in a series of NoteStreams on tonights performance. You'll be automatically linked to the following at the end. The Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman is in included.
To learn more about tonight's Guest Artists, please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
To learn more about the Pacific Chorale, please click here.

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Aida: Program Notes





Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901)

Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni

Act I & Act II


Act III & Act IV


Aida Kelebogile Besong, soprano

Radamès Arnold Rawls, tenor

Amneris Milena Kitić, mezzo-soprano

Amonasro Mark Delavan, baritone

Ramfis Julian Close, bass

King of Egypt Philip Skinner, bass

Messenger Nicholas Preston, tenor

High Priestess Renée Tatum, soprano


Tyquan Christie, Raymond Ejiofor, Lisa Gillespie, Isaac Huerta, Natalie Iscovich, Andrew Martinez

Technical Team

Grace Laubacher, scenic designer | Anshuman Bhatia, lighting designer|

Katie Wilson, costume designer |

Ora Jewell-Busche, wig and makeup designer

This production of Aida is generously sponsored by Catherine Emmi and Cameron Emmi.

Preview Talk

Verdi by Giovanni Boldini

Preview Talk

Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman


Music by Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901)

Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni (1824 - 1893),

After a Scenario by Auguste Mariette (1821 - 1881)


An African Princess in Love and War

Few operas are so deeply rooted in history as Aida. The story is a historical romance set amid the pharaonic splendor of ancient Egypt, and the opera has always been associated with the opening of the Ottoman Empire to the nations of the West, who saw the opening of the Suez Canal as an opportunity to gain political and economic advantage in the Middle East.

The opening of the canal was the epoch-making event that altered the course of modern Egyptian history. The Khedive of Egypt did seek to commission a ceremonial hymn from Verdi for the occasion.

But Verdi almost always resisted such assignments, and for the opening of the canal in November 1869, a gala performance of his opera Rigoletto at the Khedivial Opera House marked the inaugural procession of some 75 ships through the locks connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

Still, the Egyptian connection proved fateful for Verdi two years later. He had been searching for workable librettos with increasing difficulty in the late 1860s. The French impresario and librettist Camille du Locle, his collaborator on the masterpiece Don Carlos, had suggested possibilities ranging from comedies to historical epics.

But it was not until early 1870, when du Locle passed along a scenario by the archeologist and Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, that the increasingly selective Verdi could see worthwhile possibilities for an opera. In the scenario for Aida, the dramatic unity and compelling theme that were lacking in the other proposals were finally evident.

He appointed Antonio Ghislanzoni, his collaborator on the revised La forza del destino, as librettist, and set to work with Ghislanzoni and du Locle to develop grandeur and historic resonance in a story that was already built upon a sensational love triangle. With its successful and timely completion (and with opera you never know), it would be the opening production for the new opera house in Cairo. In this case, the work went well.

With Verdi, as with many other classical composers, musicologists find it useful to divide a lifetime of composition into three phases.

Simplistic? Perhaps. But in Verdi's case, it works: while "early" Verdi operas extend the bel canto tradition of the great Italian opera composers who preceded him—including Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini—"middle" Verdi operas reveal a more highly individual style that was innovative both musically and dramatically.

In Aida we hear the "late" Verdi, a composer who totally dominated the Italian opera scene and was in complete mastery of his tools, pushing the boundaries of opera as a form.

The artistic freedom of late Verdi came at a time when Richard Wagner was challenging the very idea of opera as a form and when Verdi was thought to represent an "old guard." In an irony of music history, Verdi and Wagner were born in the same year, and they have been thought to represent opposite aesthetic philosophies ever since.

But the enmity that history has assigned to them is mainly invented; though they were worlds apart stylistically, Verdi was interested in Wagner's revolutionary style and learned from it. At the time he was composing Aida he attended and openly admired Wagner's 1850 opera Lohengrin.

Opera Aida in Arena di Verona, image by Eduardo Manchon, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Egyptian setting of Aida gave Verdi an ideal framework for trying out new musical ideas. Since the days of Haydn, Mozart and Rossini, the Middle East represented an exotic "other" that fascinated listeners with exotic effects that had little or nothing to do with reality, such as the blaring brasses and tinkley percussion we hear in Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers or Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Verdi's efforts in Aida are more serious and more modern, but scarcely more authentic; they are informed by the ravening public's appetite for all things "Japonisme" following the 1862 International Exhibition in London, which astounded Europe and the U.S. In its wake, Japonisme came to represent not just Japanese culture, but everything unfamiliar and eastern. Archeology had the popular appeal that space exploration would have a century later, and Egyptologists such as Auguste Mariette were national heroes.

All this augured well for Aida, encouraging Verdi to combine tradition with judicious innovation. For example, a traditional grand opera— complete with ballet—was what the state occasion in Cairo called for.

But while Verdi gives us ballet, he integrates it with his story rather than interrupting the plot to make way for a separate dance interlude. Verdi was not yet at the point of creating an opera that was "through- composed" in the Wagnerian mold (replacing set-pieces such as arias with continuous, uninterrupted music); that would come later in Otello and Falstaff. But he does give us a sound that is distinctly exotic, glinting with the light of prehistory.

Or so it seems. From the very opening bars of the opera's prelude, we hear how Verdi weds distant, unfamiliar melody with emotional depth.

The opera's sinuous melodic lines climb and fall back, full of "accidental" chromatic notes that express romantic yearning in a way that sounds familiar and strange at once. Somehow, the serpentine lines of music bring to mind ancient Egypt, with its familiar associations of the winding Nile River and of Cleopatra's fatal asp.

This musical language is pure invention on Verdi's part. Puccini, Verdi's heir, studied the music of ancient Japan and China for his Orientalist operas, Madame Butterfly and Turandot, at times quoting actual melodies from these cultures. We can't know if Verdi might have done so if these sources had survived from ancient Egypt; but as far as Verdi (and we) knew, they did not.

As drama, Aida holds its own on the modern stage—so much so that Elton John and his partner in musical theater, Tim Rice, have attempted to outdo Verdi with their own pop-oriented version. How theirs stacks up to the original is a matter of personal judgment, but they are correct in finding modern truths at the core of the drama, including a riveting character in the person of Aida herself.

Some past critics have found her father Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia, to be even more formidable. But not this listener. Yes, his regal dignity in the face of adversity grips us; but the opera's tension and complexity belong to the ladies.

---Leontyne Price & Fiorenza Cossotto in Aida, Metropolitan Opera. January 5, 1985

When the captive Aida, unrecognized as a princess, faces her romantic rival Amneris, the music takes on an electric charge. Aida must hide her identity and her love until… well, you'll find out.


As one of the "ABC Operas" (Aida, Bohème and Carmen), Aida is universally loved, and everyone in the business of opera has Aida anecdotes… including your intrepid annotator, who once prepped a well-known film and television critic for a performance of Aida that was to be his first opera. Everyone expected him to render a harsh judgment, full of acid humor. Instead, he was totally fascinated.

"Aida's dilemma is an interesting one," he said, and so it is: Torn between her homeland and romantic longing, between filial loyalty and lover's embrace, she is forced to choose, and does so with dignity. Few operatic characters so fully deserve the title "princess."

---Ciel! Mio padre! & Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate. Leontyne Price & Simon Estes. Metropolitan Opera. 1985.

Another telling anecdote belongs not to your annotator but to the great African American soprano Leontyne Price, and to the world. Price was a superb interpreter of Aida; at the beginning of what was to be a major international career, as she was about to go onstage for the spectacularly beautiful (and impossibly difficult) "Nile scene" for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera, she uttered a prayer that has gone down in the annals: "Okay, Lord, You got me into this. Now You get me out." (He did, magnificently.)


The Story of the Opera: Act I

In the hall of the Egyptian king in Memphis, the priest Ramfis advises the general Radames that the forces of Ethiopia are again threatening to attack. Though Radames expects to be appointed leader of his country's forces, he is preoccupied with his love for Aida, and as Ramfis withdraws, he meditates on her beauty in the aria "Celeste Aida"—"Heavenly Aida."

A fanfare heralds the entry of the King of Egypt and his retinue, and the king reveals that the Egyptian god Isis has chosen Radames to command the Egyptian army. Amid the stirring calls to battle, the captive Aida is distressed to find herself echoing the calls for Radames to "Ritorna vincitor"—"return victorious." She is in love with him, but his triumph would mean the defeat of her homeland. The act ends with a solemn religious ceremony to propitiate Radames' military campaign.

Act II

In her apartment, Amneris, the daughter of the King of Egypt, is attended by Moorish slaves and entertained by dancers, all celebrating reports of Radames' military successes. But Amneris, though she sings languorously of her longings for Radames, has Aida on her mind: She suspects that this Ethiopian captive has caught Radames' eye and returns his feelings for her.

Alone with Aida, Amneris entraps her by first reporting Radames' death, then contradicting it. Aida's reactions reveal her true feelings. Their emotional confrontation ranges from tenderness to fury, comprising one of the greatest musical face-offs in all of opera, with Aida pleading for mercy as Amneris vents her rage.

1908 poster for Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, performed by the Hippodrome Opera Company of Cleveland, Ohio, showing the triumphal scene in Act II, Scene 2.

The tense emotional intimacy of the act's opening scene opens onto the aural spectacle of one of opera's greatest crowd scenes, as the victorious Radames returns in triumph in a grand procession at the gate of Thebes. Dancers enact the general's victories while prisoners of war and captured treasure are paraded before the citizens of Egypt.

The princess Amneris crowns Radames with a laurel wreath, and in the intensity of the moment, Aida inadvertently reveals to onlookers that the prisoner Amonasro is her father—though Amonasro prevents her from further revealing his identity as King of Ethiopia.

In the climactic celebration of the "glory of Egypt," Radames calls for clemency to be shown to the prisoners, and the King of Egypt rewards him with the hand of his daughter, Amneris, in marriage.


We can envision the glint of moonlight on the Nile's waters in the hushed opening bars of Aida's famous "Nile scene." In the background we hear a distant chorus chanting to the god Isis; in the foreground we hear Aida lamenting the loss of her homeland. She is there to meet her father, who calls upon her loyalty to family and country to entrap Radames, luring him to reveal the Egyptians' military plans.

Her agonized duet with Amonasro is followed by a seductive duet with Radames, during which he discloses his army's projected route. The hidden Amonasro emerges, gloating, from the shadows, to say that his army will be there to meet the Egyptians; Radames immediately surrenders to the vengeful Amneris and Ramfis, who have been lying in wait.

Act IV

Having lost both love and military glory, Radames can now only long for death. As the act opens, in a hall of the Egyptian king's palace, Radames is to be tried for betraying his country and offending the god Isis; the priestly tribunal of sacerdoti will be led by Ramfis.

But Amneris, who arranged with Ramfis to entrap Aida and Radames, is now horrified to face Radames' death and is determined to save him. She alternately pleads and rages with the priests, but to no avail. And when Amneris lets slip the fact that Aida is still alive, Radames—who thought she'd been killed—rejoices at the possibility of one final act of self-sacrifice: He will die to protect his beloved.

In an opera of gilded fanfares, Radames' trial is frighteningly austere: three times the tribunal of sacerdoti chant Radames' name and repeat his charges, commanding "discolpati"—"defend yourself!"

With each silence, they brand him a traitor and Amneris calls out for mercy. Finally, as they announce that Radames will be entombed beneath the temple of Isis, the miserable Amneris is reduced to sputtering curses at her former allies.

Philippe Chaperon's Act IV scene 2 set design for the 1880 Palais Garnier performance in Paris.

The final scene of Aida takes place on two levels: the underground vault where Radames, deprived of light, food and air, will eventually die; and the temple of Vulcan above it, where the prostrate Amneris contemplates the loss of her beloved.

Resigned to his fate, Radames faces death with equanimity, expressing thoughts of Aida. Then he hears rustling and a groaning voice, and discovers that Aida has secretly made her way into the vault to die with him.

---Placido Domingo / Aprile Millo / Dolora Zajick in the final scene of Aida, from the 1989 Emmy award winning Met production. James Levine conduting

In a final duet of surpassing beauty and lyricism, the reunited couple are happy to leave earthly turmoil behind to be united in death. Their celestial music recalls Radames' meditation "Celeste Aida" as they say farewell to the world of the living—"O terra addio." Kneeling above them, the distraught Amneris prays for the peace of Radames' soul.


---Aïda - San Francisco Opera (starring Luciano Pavarotti), featuring monumental performances by Luciano Pavarotti as Radames and Margaret Price in the title role.

Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.

To learn more about tonight's Guest Artists, please click here.

To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.

To learn more about the Pacific Chorale, please click here.