BBC Music Magazine

Verdi’s Aida receives its belated premiere in Cairo


When, in the summer of 1869, plans were being put in place to mark the inaugurati­on of Cairo’s new opera house, its director Draneht Bey had a grand idea: why not ask the great Giuseppe Verdi to write a celebrator­y hymn to accompany the occasion? Thanks, replied the Italian composer, but no thanks.

Verdi’s curiosity had evidently been piqued, however. Within months he was immersing himself in the compositio­n of a much larger work to be performed at the Khedivial Opera ★ouse, itself built in the Egyptian capital to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal. Planned for January 1871, the four-act opera Aida would take ancient Egypt as its setting, its plot based on a novel by the eminent French Egyptologi­st Auguste Mariette. With due diligence, Verdi set about his studies of Egyptian customs, religion and music, while Antonio Ghislanzon­i was called upon to provide the libretto.

The initial idea for Aida had come from Mariette, who believed his story would work well in operatic form. ★e also had a very handy contacts book that included Camille du Locle,

the influentia­l theatre manager and co-librettist of Verdi’s Don Carlos, and the Khedive Ismail Pasha, a ruler with big ambitions and deep pockets – the enormous fee o ered to Verdi for Aida did not go unremarked upon in the composer’s correspond­ence.

Not all went to plan, however. While the Khedivial Opera ★ouse successful­ly opened its doors in November 1869 with a production of Rigoletto, events in Europe meant that its own Verdi commission would not be arriving any time soon. When Mariette visited Paris to consult with Verdi and Du Locle in the summer of 1870, France was heading headlong into the Franco-prussian War. By the scheduled premiere date the following January, Prussian victory was now inevitable, but the Cairo production’s scenery and costumes were still stuck in storage in the besieged French capital. Given that plans were already in place to stage Aida at La Scala immediatel­y a er its Cairo performanc­e, the Khedive now started to get twitchy: might there even be a danger of his premiere getting superseded? Verdi assured him this would not happen.

And the composer was good to his word. When, on 24 December 1871, Giovanni Bottesini li ed his baton for Aida’s debut, it was in Cairo, not Milan. Singing the title role on that occasion was soprano Antonietta Anastasipo­zzoni, while tenor Pietro Mongini took the part of her lover Radamès.

The production’s scenery and costumes were stuck in storage in the French capital

La Scala’s Aida duly followed on 8 February 1872, with Verdi himself there to enjoy the audience’s lavish applause – he had chosen not to travel to Egypt for the premiere, joking that he feared being ‘mummified’. Ever the political animal, the composer doubtless hoped that his Italian audience would spot that words sung by Ramfis, ★igh Priest of Egypt – ‘Victory is ours because God is on our side’ – were exactly those that had been spoken in triumph by King William of Prussia only months earlier.

Nearly 150 years on, Aida remains as popular as ever. Don’t go planning a visit to the Khedivial Opera ★ouse, however – destroyed by fire in October 1971, it has been replaced by a multistore­y car park. Where Egyptian commanders once marched in triumph and Ethiopian slave-girls sang of their woes, today you’ll hear only the revving of engines and the screeching of tyres.

Also in December 1871

5th: Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi is commission­ed to create the Lion of Belfort, an immense sculpture celebratin­g the resistance of the citizens of Belfort against the siege of the Alsatian town in the Francoprus­sian War. Eventually completed in 1880, it stands 11 metres tall and 22 metres long. 10th: As part of an ongoing anti-clerical campaign in the newly unified Germany, the Reichstag passes a law banning ministers from ‘endangerin­g public peace’ by delivering political messages from the pulpit. Anyone found guilty of such an offence may face a prison term of up to two years.

21st: Luise Aston, the German author and feminist, dies at the age of 57. A furious opponent of marriage and a staunch republican, the author of works such as

Lydia and Revolution and Counter-revolution would often walk in the streets disguised as a man and smoke cigars. ‘My goal is to free the women even if it may cost me my heart’s blood,’ she wrote.

26th: Thespis, the first ever opera written by Gilbert and Sullivan in collaborat­ion, receives its premiere at the Gaiety Theatre in London. Billed as ‘An entirely original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts’, it enjoys a run of nearly three months, but is then not staged again during its writers’ lifetimes and much of the score becomes lost.

30th: Sent on a tour of the US as a goodwill ambassador, Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrov­ich, the fourth son of Alexander II of Russia, visits Chicago, much of which has recently been destroyed by fire. Greeting him, the mayor of Chicago tells him that ‘We have but little to exhibit but the ruins and debris of a great and beautiful city and an undaunted people struggling with adversity to relieve their overwhelmi­ng misfortune­s.’

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 ??  ?? Mane attraction: Bartholdi’s Lion of Belfort
Mane attraction: Bartholdi’s Lion of Belfort

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