For Giuseppe Verdi, Aida represented a significant break with his past compositional and staging practices. The new opera was in complete contrast with his last two works, Don Carlos (Paris, 1867) and the revision of La Forza del Destino (Milan, 1869). Both present large, grandiose, and sometimes sprawling visual and musical images in projecting the dramatic action. Aida, on the other hand, is clearly delineated and precisely constructed. In contrast to Don Carlos, the dramatic situations focus more on the emotional and psychological conflicts between the characters instead of a grand vision that includes political and societal viewpoints as well. Verdi learned that adherence to the ambitious French grand opéra style only led to a muddled confusion. As Verdi noted years later in a letter to Ferdinand Hiller (January 7, 1884), “in Don Carlos there is perhaps a passage here or a piece there that surpasses anything in Aida, but in Aida there’s more bite and (if you’ll forgive the word) more theatricality. Don’t take theatricality in the vulgar sense....”
It is with this particular point that Verdi hits the nail on the head. So tightly constructed is the opera that the dramatic points involved—love, jealousy, and equally significant, patriotism and public duty—all combine with the text and music into great moments of theatrical effectiveness and emotional satisfaction. The original scenario submitted to Verdi offered a wealth of richly visual images—coleur locale—that would be an integral part of an atmosphere created partly by an indication of exotic sounds in the score, particularly the Nile scene of Act III, but also a wondrous and yet cohesive spectacle that had, up until now, eluded the composer. A touch of ancient Egypt, a mysterious, long-dead world, gave the composer a chance to produce a grand opera that was the standard of the time. The opportunity to produce spectacle on both an intimate and grand scale, all the while carefully molding it as an integral part of the opera, proved irresistible. No longer would a spectacular production seem to be the highlight of the work, thus rendering as almost superfluous the music and drama of the opera.
With Aida, Verdi accomplished a rare and great achievement by superbly balancing the music, the text, and every aspect of theatrical production—a near perfect opera. Popularity came about chiefly from several things: a well-constructed libretto, solid dramaturgy with an eye for the coleur locale, an ear for theatrical effect, and a first-rate grasp of scenic and costume possibilities. Part of this accomplishment belongs to Verdi’s insistence on the correct application of the “theatrical effect,” a key part of the composer’s own operatic and theatrical aesthetic.
Exhausted after the extraordinarily difficult and drawn out rehearsals of Don Carlos and frustrated by its lukewarm success at the Paris Opera on March 11, 1867, Verdi retreated to Italy with no firm future project in hand. In response to the blandishments of Camille Du Locle—later director of the Opéra-Comique—to return to Paris, Verdi wrote that he “wanted art in any of its manifestations, not the arrangement, not the artifice and its system” that seemed to be the preferred form of operatic production. In a letter to Giulio Ricordi, his publisher in Milan, the composer expressed his frustration: “It is the difficulty of finding a subject to my liking, a poet to my liking, and a performance to my liking…,” a motif that had preoccupied Verdi throughout his career.
Through the machinations of Ricordi, the Teatro alla Scala achieved a rapprochement with the composer. After an absence of more than twenty years from the theater, Verdi revised and staged under his own direction a production of La Forza del Destino that triumphantly returned there on February 27, 1869. Shortly thereafter, an offer of a new commission came from Cairo, prompting a false story that Aida was a commission for the opening of the Suez Canal. Instead, the offer was for a hymn to commemorate the opening of both the new opera house in Cairo and the Suez Canal. Verdi declined, as he did not believe in writing “pieces of circumstance.” Instead, a new production of Rigoletto conducted by Emanuele Muzio (Verdi’s erstwhile pupil and old friend), celebrated those events on November 17, 1869.
In the spring of 1870, Du Locle was acting as a representative for the Cairo Opera. Auguste Mariette, a distinguished French archeologist and director of Egypt’s museum of antiquities, had sent him a scenario based on the Egyptian viceroy’s wish to have a work based on a “purely ancient and Egyptian opera” complete with an elaborate production that would use the coleur locale. Du Locle forwarded the scenario accompanied by Mariette’s letter dated April 27, 1870, in which he proposed what would become the title of the opera. “Don’t be alarmed by the title. Aida is an Egyptian name. Normally it would be Aïta. But that name would be too harsh, and the singers would irresistibly soften it to Aida.” Verdi responded two weeks later with interest. He noted “it was well done” and, given his acuity for the visual side of opera, it was equally important that the possibilities for the mise-en-scène were “splendid” and the “two or three situations, while not new, were certainly very beautiful.”
After some preliminary negotiations with Du Locle, Verdi announced on June 2, 1870 to his astonished publisher that he had “a fully developed outline of an opera with chorus, mise-en-scène, act divisions, etc.” In that same letter, he asked Ricordi if Antonio Ghislanzoni, who previously assisted with the revision of the libretto for La Forza del Destino, was available for another collaboration. ricordi cheerfully offered that Ghislanzoni would arrive with a Nubian slave to protect the librettist from the ferocious watchdogs guarding Verdi’s home in Sant’Agata. At the beginning of July, Ghislanzoni arrived at Sant’Agata for the first series of discussions on the libretto and immediately set to work drafting the first act.
At the beginning of the compositional process, Verdi moved cautiously. He realized that Mariette’s scenario presented him with a unique opportunity for a first-rate opera. At the same time, however, Verdi was aware of the dangers of losing the theatrical effect of opera by expending too much effort upon either the music or the text and never finding a balance. Ghislanzoni, in creating a new libretto, apparently was losing sight of the fact that opera was first and foremost a theatrical event. Verdi cautioned that one must never forget that the words must have a theatrical impact, the parola scenica. He emphasized that “‘parola scenica’ [theatrical words] [are] those that carve out a situation or a character, words that always have a most powerful impact on the audience.” After reviewing a draft of the libretto, Verdi patiently explained, “When the action warms up, it seems to me that the theatrical word is missing. I don’t know if I make myself clear when I say ‘theatrical word,’ but I mean the word that clarifies and presents the situation neatly and plainly.” (“Parola scenica” cannot be precisely translated. In this context, “theatrical word” is interchangeable with “dramatic situation” or “dramatic event.”) After pointing out that a part of the text had a weak theatrical effect, he then goes on: “And the verse, the rhyme, the strophe? I don’t know what to say. But when the action demands it, I would quickly abandon rhythm, rhyme, strophe; I would write unrhymed verse to say clearly and distinctly whatever the action requires. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary in the theater for poets and composers to have the talent not to write poetry or music.”
Over the next four months, Verdi and Ghislanzoni worked quickly and efficiently to complete the text and the first draft of the music in time for the original deadline of the end of 1870, the time for the projected first performances in Cairo. Ricordi set into motion the planning for an eventual production at La Scala. In August, word of the new work began to spread. Ricordi announced in the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano on August 21 that Verdi was composing a new opera for Cairo and that a production would be forthcoming “in a European theater,” which, of course, would be at La Scala. Il Trovatore, a theatrical newspaper in Turin, published a synopsis of the opera on September 8, whetting the appetite of the public impatient for a new opera from Verdi.
In surprising contrast to preparations of past operas, the composition process moved swiftly. Amidst constant changes, sharpening of the texts, and dramaturgical clarifications, by the end of September the libretto for the first two acts of the opera was complete. Act III followed one month later and the fourth and final act at the end of November; the basic composition of the opera itself was completed in December. Throughout the shaping of the libretto, Verdi consistently sought for the theatrical effect, one that would clarify the stage action, bring out the characters in stark contrast to one another, and provide the dramatic and emotional intensity for each scene.
Throughout the creative process, the composer repeatedly emphasized to Ghislanzoni the necessity for verses that would bring forth a clear dramatic situation leading to an effective theatrical event. He was not always interested in beautiful lyrics, but preferred musical and dramatic clarity. In a letter of August 14, 1870, Verdi noted that the consecration scene in Act I “did not have the importance that I expected. The characters don’t always say what they should, and the priests are not priestly enough. It also seems to me that the dramatic situation is missing, or if it is there, it is buried under the rhyme or under the verse and so doesn’t jump out as neatly and plainly as it should.”
The patriotic element is not as blunt as in Verdi’s earlier works of the 1840s, but woven into the drama and conflict between the characters in a much more psychological fashion. Duty and patriotism were extremely important, but Verdi used these elements in a subtle fashion, specifically as dramatic devices to reveal the emotional states of the characters. The great dramatic conflict centers on the love of Radames and Aida, both caught between their love for each other and their respective countries. While not essential to the final tragedy, the element of Amneris’s jealousy adds to the overall dramatic— in short, theatrical—intensity of the entire opera. Such an example occurs after the entire ensemble, including Aida, calls out “Ritorna vincitor!” and Radames marches off bearing the banner of the pharaohs presented to him by Amneris. Yet Aida catches herself and remembers her heritage in the same situation in Act III. Another effective instance of the theatrical word occurs during the confrontation between Amonasro and Aida as he hammers on duty to one’s homeland amidst his accusations that she has forgotten her people and has become a mere slave of the pharaohs.
Contrasts in dynamics are an effective dramatic device as well. At the conclusion of the conversation between Radames and Ramfis, the recitative is delivered in a joyous and exultant manner, whereas the romanza, “Celeste Aida,” is a lyrical and soft contrast. Only once does the music call for a forte, for the greater part of the aria is sung in a piano and concludes with a pianissimo B-flat, a feat for any tenor. Verdi repeats this dramatic exploration of Aida’s inner conflicts between love, duty, and patriotism in her third act romanza, “O patria mia.”
The creation of the atmosphere, coleur locale occurs not only with rich visual images but in the music as well. A singularly effective use occurs in the beginning of the third act. The scene is set at the banks of the Nile, displaying granite rocks overgrown with palm trees. A moon shines on the temple of Isis during a starlit night. The music begins softly with a rich mixture of muted violins and violas playing arpeggios, tremolos, and staccatos joined by unmuted cellos playing in harmonics and a solo flute to suggest an occasional arabesque. The entire passage, a seemingly short thirty four bars, effectively creates an atmosphere at the beginning of a scene, matched only by Wagner’s opening bars in Das Rheingold.
Aida signals the completion of a musical break that began with Don Carlos—the abandonment of the operatic convention of distinctly separate musical numbers connected by clear recitatives. Verdi composed lengthy and uninterrupted scenes, deliberately allowing only several instances of breaks in the musical flow to permit audience reactions. One is at the conclusion of “Celeste Aida”; the other occurs at the spectacular conclusion of the grand march amidst the fanfare of trumpets, praise of the populace, and thanksgiving by the priests in the second scene of Act II. The third act aria “O patria mia” is another fine example. Yet these interruptions fit into the whole of the structure of the opera and without any subsequent breaks in the established dramatic tension.
In Sant’Agata and Milan, Verdi and Ricordi followed the preparations closely for the settings and costumes for Cairo were the basis for the production at La Scala. Verdi, through his publisher, exercised absolute artistic control and demanded satisfaction with every aspect of the production or he would withdraw the score. The composer himself directed the musical rehearsals with the soloists and personally supervised the production. Franco Faccio— who later would conduct the revised version of Simon Boccanegra as well as Otello—prepared and conducted the orchestra. All was finally in order. The premieres in Cairo at the Opera on December 24, 1871 and that at the Teatro alla Scala on February 8, 1872 were complete triumphs. Aida then took off like wildfire. More than 150 separate premieres in nine years occurred throughout Europe, north and South America. Because the theatrical events in the opera were so congenial and easily accessible to the public, Aida was to become, together with La Bohème and Carmen, among the most popular works in the entire repertory.