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Aida is an opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, based on a scenario written by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. It was first performed at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo on December 24, 1871.
Ismail Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, commissioned Verdi to write the opera for performance in January 1871, paying him 150,000 francs, but the premiere was delayed because of the Franco-Prussian War. Contrary to popular belief, the opera was not written to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, nor that of the Khedivial Opera House in the same year. (Verdi had been asked to compose an ode for the occasion, but refused on the grounds that he did not write "occasional pieces".) The opera was met with great acclaim when it finally opened and continues to be a staple of the standard operatic repertoire. There are many recordings of it, and it is one of the most popular operas. Opera America claims it to be the sixteenth most performed opera in North America.
Synopsis: Aida, an Ethiopian princess, is captured and brought into slavery in Egypt. A military commander, Radames, struggles to choose between his love for her and his loyalty to the Pharaoh. To complicate the story further, Radames is loved by the Pharaoh's daughter Amneris, although he does not return the feeling.
Aida, the daughter of the Ethiopian King Amonasro, lives at Memphis as a slave. Her Egyptian captors are unaware of her true identity. Her father has made an incursion into Egypt to deliver her from servitude. But since her capture, Aida has fallen in love with Radames, a young warrior (Romanza, Radames: "Heavenly Aïda"). She has a dangerous rival in Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian king. (Duet, Radames and Amneris: "In thy visage I trace.") Incited by Amneris, the high priest Ramfis (Terzett, Aïda, Amneris, and Radames: "Oh fate o'er Egypt looming") declares that Radames has been selected by Isis to be the leader of the army against Amonasro. (Battle Hymn: "On! Of Nilus' sacred river, guard the shores.") Aida's heart is torn between her love for her father and her love for Radames. (Scene, Aida: "Return a conqueror.")Scene II: The Temple of Vulcan. In the center an altar illuminated by a mysterious light from above.
Solemn ceremonies and dance of priestesses. (Chorus of priestesses: "O mighty Ptha.") Installation of Radames to the office of commander-in-chief. (Prayer, Ramfis and chorus: "O mighty one, guard and protect!")...
Amneris' chamber. Festal dances and music. (Chorus of women: "Our songs his glory praising.") Amneris receives her slave Aida and cunningly tricks her into professing her love for Radames by lying and declaring that Ramades has fallen in battle. Aida's distress upon hearing this news betrays her love of Radames. (Scene and duet, Amneris, Aida: "The chances of war afflict thy people, poor Aida;" Aida: "O love, O joy tormenting.")Scene II: Outside the city walls at the grand Gate of Thebes.
Radames returns victorious. (Chorus, king and people: "Glory to Egypt, to Isis!") Grand triumphal march. The Egyptian king decrees that on this day the triumphant Radames may have anything he wishes. The Ethiopian captives are marched in. Amonasro appears among them. Aida immediately rushes to her father, but their true identities are still unknown to the Egyptians. Amonasro declares that the Ethiopian king has been slain in battle. (Amonasro: "This my garment has told you already.") Out of his love for Aida, Radames uses the King's grant to release the prisoners. The grateful King of Egypt declares him his successor and the betrothed of his daughter. Aida and Amonasro remain as hostages to ensure that the Ethiopians do not avenge their defeat.
(Chorus of priests and priestesses: "O thou who to Osiris art...") Amneris enters the temple in preparation for her wedding. Outside, Aida waits to meet with Radames as he planned (Aria, Aida: "Oh, my dear country!"). Amonasro enters and he forces Aida to learn from Radames the position of the Egyptian army. (Duet, Aida and Amonasro: "Once again shalt thou gaze."). Radames enters and affirms that he will only marry Aida, and she later convinces him to flee to the desert with her. As an excuse to ease their flight, Aida asks the position of the Egyptian army, which Radames tells and Amonasro hears. (Duet, Radames and Aida: "Again I see thee.") When Amonasro reveals his identity, Radames is dishonored. At the same time Amneris exits the temple, and seeing the scene calls the guards. Amonasro flees with Aida, while the despairing Radames allows himself to be taken prisoner to give them time to flee. (Terzett, Amonasro, Aida, Radames: "I am dishonoured.")...
Amneris (Scene, Amneris: "My hated rival has escaped me") desires to save Radames, but he is repulsed by her (Duet, Amneris and Radames: "Now to the hall the priests proceed"). Radames' trial takes place offstage; he will not speak in his own defense, and is condemned to death, while Amneris, who remains onstage, pleads with the priests to show him mercy. The sentence is that he shall be buried alive. Amneris curses the priests as Radames is taken away. (Judgment scene, Amneris, Ramfis, and chorus: "Heavenly spirit, descend.")Scene II: The lower portion of the stage shows the burial place in the Temple of Vulcan; the upper portion represents the temple itself.
Aida has hidden herself in the crypt to die with Radames. (Scene and duet, Radames and Aida: "The fatal stone now closes over me.") They accept their terrible fate (Radames: "To die, so pure and lovely"), bid farewell to earth and its sorrows, and await the Dawn, while Amneris weeps and prays above their tomb in the midst of the priestly ceremonies, and the jubilant dance of the priestesses. (Finale, chorus of priests and priestesses: "Almighty Ptha.")Footnote: The original draft included a speech by Aida (excised from the final version) that explained her presence beneath the Temple: "My heart knew your sentence. For three days I have waited here." The line most familiar to audiences translates as: "My heart forewarned me of your condemnation. In this tomb that was opened for you I entered secretly. Here, away from human sight, in your arms I wish to die."
The opera has been recorded many times.
One important early recording was made in August 1952 in Rome for Decca Records by the Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Alberto Erede and featuring Renata Tebaldi as Aida, Mario del Monaco as Radames, Ebe Stignani as Amneris, Aldo Protti as Amonasro, Fernando Corena as Il Re, Dario Caselli as Ramfis, and Piero de Palma as the messenger (Naxos 8.110129-30).
Tebaldi reprised her role as Aida with Carlo Bergonzi as Radames in a recording with Herbert von Karajan conducting in 1959, and a young Leontyne Price (opposite Jon Vickers) performed the role in 1961. Arturo Toscanini's Concert Version of 1949 (with Herva Nelli as the heroine) was released on RCA, and Maria Callas recorded the opera (under Tullio Serafin) along with Richard Tucker in 1955, for EMI.
Also: The Victrola Guide to the Opera, 6th edition.
The "Grand March" that is played during the triumphal scene in Act II, Scene II ("Gloria all´Egitto") has been incorporated into the soundtracks of a number of motion pictures; it is also used as a football chant in Europe, and in the Chumbawamba song "Top Of The World (Ole, Ole, Ole)."
The story, but not the music, of the opera has been used as the basis for a 1998 musical of the same name written by Elton John and Tim Rice.