Opera Buff in 20 Minutes: Aida

Setting: Ancient Egypt, during a war between Egypt and Ethiopia.

Plot in three sentences: Aida, captive daughter of Ethiopian king, falls for a warrior Radames, the new leader of the Egyptian army, but has powerful rival in Princess Amneris. Radames brings back Aida’s father as captive, and he forces his daughter to trick her lover into betraying military secrets. Amneris denounces Radames, who is sentenced to be buried alive in a pyramid, but Aida joins him; they die happy, while Amneris weeps outside.

Reputation: Written for a ceremonial occasion (opening of the Suez Canal), Aida is full of pageantry, with lots of processions, but is also full of intense personal emotion. It was Verdi’s last opera for 16 years, and is now seen as the consummation of his grand opera style. Not quite as ambitious as the sprawling Force of Destiny and Don Carlos, it has a unity and direct drive those pieces possibly lack.

Critical reaction: Instant success, first in Cairo and then back in Europe. Verdi had no doubts: ‘It’s a success and will pack the theatre.’

Classical performers: Leontyne Price has always been an assured Aida; Zinka Milanov and Swedish tenor Jussi Björling made a superb Aida and Radames.

Highlights: The Grand March & Chorus (Act 1); ‘Celeste Aida’ (Act 1); ‘Ritorna vincitor’.

Death toll: 1. Aida and Radames, buried alive. 2. A lot of soldiers in off-stage battle scenes.

What to say in a loud voice in the interval bar: ‘Of course, it’s not a psychologically complex piece – over-reliant on spectacle and pageantry – but effectively emotionally manipulative.’

What to say quietly in the pub: ‘Sun, sex and sand – all it needs is sangria.’

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1995

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