Following the première of Don Carlos at the Paris Opéra in March 1867, Verdi returned to his farm at Sant’ Agata in the Po valley. He found peace on the land he loved and where he planted trees, cultivated vines and bred his horses.
Maybe he would now retire! He had often said so. “My piano is shut, and I can’t remember a note of music. Why should I compose again?”
Yet, he was constantly on the lookout for suitable libretti. Throughout his life Verdi closely managed the process of creating his operas’ texts. Being a man of powerful dramatic insight, he knew what he wanted and was never satisfied until he got it.
Constantly in touch with Verdi, the French theatre director and librettist, Camille du Locle sought to lure him back to Paris. The composer was far from enthusiastic and, while he had an affectionate regard for du Locle, his respect for the Opéra was less well disposed.
The French director refused to be put off. He sent the composer a libretto that he had complied from a story by the French Egyptologist and archaeologist Auguste Mariette.
The latter had already suggested to Ismail Pasha, the Turkish Khedive of Egypt and Sudan and involved with the construction of the Suez Canal, that his work would be an ideal setting for an opera to celebrate the opening of both the Canal and Cairo’s new opera house in November 1869. The Khedive approved and, keen on the prestige of an international figure, suggested Verdi.
When approached, Verdi agreed and the seeds of Aida began to grow. Du Locle drafted a French libretto, which Verdi rejected insisting the opera would be in Italian.
With the matter settled, the composer called in librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni. Verdi liked him and knew he would not resist any changes Verdi might suggest to improve the text along the way.
Aida was completed in the astonishingly short time of four months. Auguste Mariette designed the costumes and oversaw the construction of his sets at the Paris Opéra. Their shipment to Cairo, however, was delayed due to the Franco/Prussian war in 1870 during which Paris was besieged and captured. Aida’s Cairo première was postponed until 24 December 1871.
Verdi did not attend the Egyptian opening, preferring instead to supervise the preparation of Aida’s first La Scala performance on February 8, 1872. Enthusiastically received in both Cairo and Milan, there was some critical comment. The disgruntled composer, accused of being influenced by Gounod, Meyerbeer and Wagner, retorted: “A fine thing, after 35 years, to end up as an imitator!” Whatever about the criticisms, Aida is a masterpiece.
The opera comes to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre courtesy of Irish National Opera with performances on November 24, 27 and 29 and December 1.
Directed by Michael Barker-Caven, Fergus Sheil conducts the RTÉCO and INO chorus with Orla Boylan in the title role of Ethiopian princess enslaved to Imelda Drumm’s Egyptian princess Amneris, her rival in their love for military hero Radamès, played by Gwyn Hughes Jones.