Setting: ancient Egypt
A room in the Royal Palace in Memphis.
Radamès, the Captain of the Guards, learns from Ramfis, the head of the High Priests, that the Ethiopians are threatening war and that the Goddess Isis has already decided on the name of the Egyptian supreme commander who will lead the Egyptian army in confronting the enemy. Radamès is overjoyed at the news and hopes he will be chosen. He imagines a glorious victory where he is able to return triumphantly to free his beloved Aida, slave of Amneris, the Egyptian King's daughter. Amneris appears and he tells her of his hopes, with no mention of his feelings for Aida, although Amneris has her suspicions. Shortly after, Aida herself approaches and Amneris sees in her eyes the love she bears for Radamès. She swears vengeance because she too is in love with the young captain of the guards. In the meantime the King enters preceded by his guards and followed by priests led by Ramfis. A messenger enters bearing the news that the Ethiopians have invaded Egypt and are marching against Thebes, led by the mighty warrior Amonasro. The King announces that Isis has appointed Radamès supreme commander. The crowd cries out in homage to him, while Amneris punctuates the choral song with a languorous appeal for her warrior to return in victory. Only Aida is sad since the victory of Radamès, whom she loves, must mean the defeat of her father, the King of Ethiopia, who has taken up arms to free her from slavery. In this moment of distress, she calls upon the gods to have pity on her.
Inside the temple of Vulcan in Memphis.
The priests and priestesses sing a hymn to the gods. Radamès enters dressed for battle, receives the sacred sword and is consecrated to Fthà to protect him in war and to direct him towards victory.
A room in Amneris' private apartments.
The King's daughter is surrounded by her slaves who are dressing her for the triumphal Egypitan festivities, while young Moorish slaves perform a dance. When Aida appears, Amneris hides her true feelings and sympathizes with her for the fate of her people, defeated in the battle. Then, to discover whether Aida is, in fact, in love with Radamès, she tells her that he has been killed in the battle. Aida is stricken with grief; Amneris confirms her suspicions and filled with rage, reveals the truth. Radamès is alive and she, Amneris, loves him too. At first Aida proudly declares her love, but then begs in vain for pity. Amneris threatens her, reminding her that she is only a slave and cannot hope to compete with a daughter of the Pharaohs. At this point, Aida is about to reveal her royal identity but decides against it.
At the city walls in Thebes
The population celebrates the victory, while the King and Amneris, together with Aida and other slaves, the ministers and priests, await Radamès to celebrate his triumph. A column of soldiers and prisoners arrives, with Radamès at its head. The King welcomes him and asks him what he would like as a reward. Radamès has the prisoners brought before the King. Among them Aida recognizes her father Amonasro and succeeds in speaking to him briefly. He commands her not to betray him, and, without revealing his true identity, both Aida and her father beg for his mercy. Radamès also pleads that all the prisoners be freed, but the high priest objects and proposes that at least Aida and her father be held in Egypt, as a guarantee of peace. The king approves this suggestion and announces that he intends to reward Radamès by bestowing the hand of Amneris upon him. While the crowd cheers, Radamès and Aida secretly express their sorrow.
Night on the banks of the Nile.
At the temple of Isis Ramfis leads Amneris to the temple to receive the goddess' blessing on the eve of her wedding. Concealed nearby, Aida awaits Radamès for their secret encounter, but while she is waiting Amonasro appears. He has discovered the emotions Aida and Radamès feel for each other. He reminds Aida of the beauties of her native land, and the cruelty of their enemies and urges her to persuade Radamès to reveal the route the Egyptian forces will use to invade Ethiopia. Aida is horrified at his suggestion. Then Radamès approaches and Amonasro conceals himself. Aida proposes to Radamès that they flee from Egypt, following some secret route unguarded by the Egyptian forces. Radamès agrees and then Aida questions him on the route his army will take into Ethiopia. Radamès mentions the gorges of Napata and at that moment Amonasro reappears and reveals his true identity. Radamès is horror-stricken, for he realizes that he has revealed a military secret and is dishonoured. At this point Amneris arrives from the temple and cries out at the betrayal. Amonasro seeks to kill her but Radamès prevents him, and surrendering his sword to Ramfis, allows himself to be taken prisoner. Amonasro escapes with Aida.
A room in the King's Palace.
Amneris is torn between rage, sorrow and love. She wants to save Radamès and has him brought before her. She asks him to plead not guilty before the High Priests to his conviction of being a traitor. In this way she can help him. He refuses. To convince him, Amneris has him believe that Aida is dead along with her father Amonasro. This does not dissuade him as now life holds nothing more for him. Finally, Amneris reveals that Aida is, in fact, still alive. This revelation precipitates rejoicing by Radamès that he can now die to protect his beloved. However, Amneris declares that she will implore the King to pardon him if only he will renounce his love for Aida. He repeatedly refuses. He is consequently taken back to the dungeon and sentenced to be buried alive under the altar in the temple of Vulcan. Amneris bitterly deplores the cruelty of the priests and their punishment.
In the Temple of Vulcan in Radamès' tomb.
Radamès is ready to die and prays that Aida will be able to find happiness one day: but Aida is concealed in the chamber and comes forward to embrace him. Radamès laments Aida's harsh fate, and vainly tries to dislodge the stone that seals the tomb. But Aida consoles him with the certainty that the ''angel of death'' will unite them forever and appears to be already speeding to a celestial haven. While the two lovers bid farewell to the Earth, Amneris clothed in mourning robes, prostrates herself on the stone covering the entrance to the vault and beseeches the gods to grant peace to the man buried below.
Can one define Aida as a commissioned Opera? If Giuseppe Verdi had written it for the inauguration of the Cairo Opera House - which took place in 1870 - we could agree with the definition, but the circumstances which brought about the staging of the greatest classical opera by Verdi were different.
In 1869, for the occasion of the celebrations for the opening of the Suez Canal, the Khedive (Viceroy of Egypt) commissioned Pietro Avoscani from Livorno in Italy to draw up the plans for an opera house and consequently build it. This exceptional undertaking, completed in just six months, required a prestigious and unpublished performance for its inauguration. At this point the Khedive called the famous Italian Composer to write an opera worthy enough for this occasion, which would be staged in the new Opera House. Verdi refused, not considering himself suited to composing operas on demand: at the opening of the Cairo Opera House the Khedive had to be satisfied with Rigoletto, without abandoning however, the project of entrusting Verdi with the commitment of writing another production.
The Viceroy's wish met with a mutual desire of the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette - who for some time had been working for the Egyptian Court - and had written a story based on Egyptian characters: nothing could have been more adapt for the occasion of the inauguration. Mariette took advantage of the situation to contact Camille Du Locle, Director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris, asking him to find a musician to write a lyrical opera based on his story. Du Locle boasted a strong friendship with Verdi from the time of their collaboration when working on Don Carlos and therefore, he showed his friend the Egyptian story. Verdi appeared indecisive. The Director of the Opera House knew how to convince him: if he didn't accept, the Khedive would surely turn to somebody else, maybe to a certain Richard Wagner, who was in the process of conquering the European scene with a very different type of music to Verdi's. The Italian Composer's weak point got the better of him and so as not to hand over the task to Wagner, whom he looked upon as his rival, he accepted the task of composing Aida.
The composer's compensation fee was fixed at the astronomical figure of 150.000 francs. He then committed himself to composing the libretto at his own expense and to paying an Orchestra Director who would substitute him in Cairo to direct the Première. The contract foresaw that the Opera would be presented in January 1871, but historical events prevented this. In 1870 the succession to the Spanish Throne caused a war between France and Prussia: at that time Mariette was actually in Paris, engaged in the organization of the stage design and the costumes for Aida. When the Prussian army arrived at the French capital and surrounded the city, the Egyptologist ended up a prisoner inside the city and was compelled to interrupt the preparations.
In the meantime Verdi had made contact with Antonio Ghislanzoni for the drafting of the libretto under his own supervision. Then Verdi managed to guarantee the staging of the première of Aida in Italy at the Teatro alla Scala di Milano. He composed the music very quickly, closely following Ghislanzoni's work, which was given to him bit by bit as each verse was completed. From that moment the composer was much more interested in the première in Milan than the one in Cairo and he had no intention of going to Egypt. He orchestrated the Opera in his own house in Sant'Agata, making notes and inserting markings directly on the score for the staging of the opera in the Egyptian Opera House. Due to the velocity of the work, the opera was completed by November 1870.
As soon as the Prussian Army entered the city, Mariette along with the scenography and the costumes could set sail for Cairo where the final preparations for the staging of the opera awaited them.
After very little difficulty, on December 24th, 1871, Aida finally was staged in Cairo before a Khedive who was so satisfied that he awarded the great composer with the title of 'Commander of the Ottoman Order'. Just two months later, on February 8th, 1872, the opera was staged in the Scala in Milan with a first-rate cast. Among them was the soprano Teresa Stolz. Thanks to the Milanese Début, the most important Italian and European Theatres requested the staging of Aida and this increased the fame of the Spectacular Opera; it was the beginning of a series of performances that were to classify Aida amongst the finest of Verdi's lyrical masterpieces. This opera is still triumphant in theatres all over the world.