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It is well known that Aida was commissioned from Giuseppe Verdi by the Khedive of Egypt to mark the opening of the Suez Canal. For ten years the composer had written nothing for Italian theatres. His new operas were awaited with baited breath everywhere from London to St Petersburg and he received more for them than in his native Italy. And so it happened that one of the maestro’s greatest masterpieces was premiered in Cairo, far from any of the world’s operatic capitals. Although it had been stated that if Verdi didn’t write an opera they would turn to Wagner or to Gounod (what an amazing choice theatres had in 1870!), in Egypt they waited patiently until having turned them down twice the maestro eventually agreed to read the scenario – and he found it was a magnificent one. Then they waited some more until the immense score was ready and still more until they could get the costumes and sets from France that had been delayed at the workshops in Paris because of the Franco-Prussian War. The Cairo premiere took place on 24 December 1871. The composer did not travel to Egypt, preferring to stay in Milan for rehearsals of a production there.

In Aida Verdi succeeded in doing everything. Every image, even the episodic Messenger, is depicted sharply, the vocal roles are magnificent and almost every number of the score proved a hit. In terms of the stunning visual impact, Aida with its choruses, processions and dances is a million miles ahead of one of its direct predecessors in French grand opera – Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. The first Cairo production was particularly luxurious, and for the famous march Verdi himself ordered six long “Egyptian” trumpets from the Milanese instrument maker Giuseppe Pelitti.

In his twenty-third opera Verdi showed himself to be conservative, wisely preferring traditional forms to innovations in composition. If one reads his letters to the librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, it may appear that he really wanted to reject drama altogether in favour of the music. For example, in the finale Verdi only wanted singing “pure and simple”. Of course, that is not what happened. Aida is remarkable for the magnificent dramatic scenes of the protagonists – Aida, Amneris, Radames and Amonasro – and the abundance of unexpected twists in the plot. But in these two the singing is the most important and the lofty verse that accompanies it is magnificent in terms of style. Working on the scene of Amneris and the priests, Verdi told his co-creator: “Never doubt that here you are writing beautiful poetry, consistent, noble and lofty.” This is the spirit of Aida – a work that is, essentially, classical and which in terms of its tome comes close to a Greek tragedy.

The most surprising thing in Aida is its finale. Verdi said, “I would like something tender and lofty, an extremely brief duet, a farewell to life. Aida would quietly melt into Radames’ embrace. At the same time, Amneris, on her knees on the stone covering the entrance to the dungeon, would sing a kind of ‘Requiescant in pace’.” And that’s how it turned out, and the lovers walled up in the dungeon, bidding farewell to the world and worldly suffering, as if rise upwards towards the heavens.