"Aida" is the grandest of grand operas. It was commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Cairo Opera House, built to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi refused at first and "Rigoletto" was the first opera performed at the new venue.
The Khedive of Egypt persisted and wanted something spectacular and that was what Verdi provided in the end. What caught Verdi's imagination was the historical framework of the subject and the fact that the story provided something new.
The story behind "Aida" has a few parallels with "Romeo and Juliet" - two lovers from two families who cannot be reconciled, in this case one is Egyptian and the other is Ethiopian. Rather than the feud between the Montagues and Capulets, here we have a war between the two nations.
The two central characters are Radames and Aida. Radames initially is the Captain of the Guard but is soon appointed commander in chief of the Egyptian forces. Aida is introduced as an Ethiopian slave to Amneris, Princess of Egypt. We subsequently discover that she is the daughter of the King of Ethiopia, captured in an earlier battle.
Like Romeo and Juliet, their love cannot prosper and when war breaks out again tension and problems escalate.
The grand scene - the Triumphaal March celebrating the Egyptians victory over the Ethiopians is the finale of the second act and is glorious in its splendor. In the Arena in Verona it lends itself to the 'full treatment' of a vast cast and much sparkling, looted treasure.
Amneris, Princess of Egypt, is in love with Radames as well, and tries to win him. So there is also an intimate side to the opera as well, a private drama between three characters: Radames, Aida and Amneris.
Amongst all this are atmospheric soundscapes of Egyptian priests and priestesses and oriental chants composed for them.
Things go completely astray when Aida's father asks her to get information about the Egyptian army's movements from Radames. Information is passed on and consequently Radames is condemned as a traitor and sentenced to be buried alive but not before Aida joins him in the tomb.
Verdi writes great music for the Egyptians but his emotional symphonies are with the Ethiopians as the underdogs and Aida, in particular. In fact, there is so tender, subtle music with delicate elegant effects which balance the stirring nationalist spectacle.
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