One hundred and sixteen years after it was first performed in Cairo, Guiseppe Verdi's spectacular opera came home last May to the city in which much of it is set. A $10-million extravaganza, Aida re-created amid the imposing ruins of ancient Thebes the pharaonic splendor of 3,000 years ago, inspiration of the original Aida story.
In the opera, it is to Thebes, and the Ethiopian slave girl he loves, that the Egypti, general Radamès returns in triumph after defeating the Ethiopian army. But patriotism briefly overcomes Aida's love for Radamès: She extracts vital military secrets from him. Realizing his own treason, Radamès surrenders to the high priests and is condemned to be buried alive. But before he is entombed, Aida slips into the death chamber to share his fate.
Theatrically magnificent, the Luxor Temple production was musically somewhat disappointing, due to poor amplification. Nonetheless, the glittering first-night audience - which included Queen Sophia of Spain, Princess Caroline of Monaco and First Lady Susan Mubarak of Egypt - loved it, especially the Theban parade celebrating Radamès's victory. That brought onto the stage - an area larger than most whole theaters - almost the entire cast of more than 1,500 singers, dancers, musicians and extras, a small herd of horses, and even a lion. It was, everyone agreed, the grandest Grand March in Aida history.
For pure atmosphere, however, the opening scenes stole the show. Against the stunning natural backdrop of Luxor Temple, from where pharaonic armies actually once went forth to defend the borders of the land, the priests and priestesses emerged to consecrate Radamès for his coming battle. And Aida wept at the foot of a colossal statue of Ramses II, whose military exploits against the Hittites are celebrated in bas-reliefs on the great pylon behind the statue.
Even Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, who had played Radamès more than 60 times before he came to Luxor, was deeply moved. "It was a unique feeling," he said after his first-night performance. Just waiting for his cue among the giant papyrus-shaped pillars of the 3,350-year-old temple was "splendid," he said.
The dress rehearsals too were different: Domingo arrived, jacket char acteristically slung over his shoulder, to meet with the production staff among the ruins, while officials of the Egyptian Antiquities Department hurried here and there to ensure that the fragile monuments would not be damaged by technical crews and their miles of electric cable. Rehearsals were full of the usual "bugs" that delight theater buffs everywhere: a bewildered temple groundsman wandering across the set at the start of the first act; an Egyptian horseman falling spectacularly - and harmlessly - to the ground when his saddle girth snapped in full gallop; and the city cannon, fired to wake fasters during the holy month of Ramadan, going off with a deafening roar in the middle of the climactic death scene. But all went right on the night.
During the day, tourists picked their way around plastic props littering the temple complex: With Luxor Temple to the left of the audience, the Avenue of the Sphinx to the right and the River Nile before them, there was little need for scenery. Normally sedate Luxor took on a bustling, festive air. There were parties, press conferences, and Egyptian folkdandng on the river bank. Nine luxury river liners arrived from Cairo, Concorde jets flew in from London and Paris, and for a moment the faded splendor of the 100-year-old Winter Palace hotel came alive again with tuxedos and evening gowns.
Among them, Egyptian-born entrepreneur Fawzi Mitwali, the man who had made it all possible, seemed out of place. He was nervous, tired and unsmiling.
"Ever since I was a boy in Egypt," he said, "it has always been my dream to bring Verdi's opera back to its place of origin." But it cost Mitwali, who has lived in Vienna for the past 30 years, more worry - and money - than he bargained for.
First he had to overcome objections from archeologists, who feared for the safety of the Luxor Temple, considered a jewel among Egypt's ancient treasures. Next Mitwali had to contend with competition: Certain parties, he said ominously, announced that they would stage a rival production of Aida at the Pyramids - two weeks before the Luxor performances. And finally there was the press. For although the Egyptian government halted the unseemly competition over the opera, Mitwali said, adverse news stories nonetheless "reduced ticket sales."
Most of the ten May performances were only about three-quarters sold out, and even with tickets priced between $250 and $700 Mitwali was expecting to lose near $1 million. "But that doesn't matter," he said. "Egypt is my homeland and Egypt will gain $10 million in tourism."
In fact, by the time the estimated 20,000 visitors had seen the opera and "done" Egypt, tourism officials were hoping they would have spent as much as $50 million. And Mohamed Nassim, chairman of the Egyptian General Authority for the Promotion of Tourism, was suggesting that Aida might even become an annual event.
The private sector too was pleased with the unexpected boost the opera gave to the tail end of the Egyptian tourist season. "Normally, at this time of the year, we are half empty," said a receptionist at the Winter Palace hotel. Huessin Yahya of Memnon Tours confirmed, "It's the best season we've had for ten years," and souvenir shops reported a brisk trade in Aida tee-shirts and other, less likely, memorabilia.
With the teething troubles of first night solved, even Mitwali cheered considerably. "What's a million dollars anyway?" he was quoted as saying. "Now I have the experience, I can do it again, even bigger. And next time, every seat will be sold." Looking relaxed and happy on the Nile-side terrace of the Sheraton Hotel, Mitwali's entrepreneurial instincts rekindled, and he told reporters he hoped to stage Samson and Delilah at Luxor in two years' time. Later he spoke of Carmen in Seville, Butterfly in Japan and West Side Story in New York."
Domingo, whose films and worldwide television appearances have done much to popularize opera, said he too would like to return to Egypt. "But next time, said the tenor, "I want to sing for the Egyptians," few of whom got a chance to see this production of Aida . On the spot, the singer received and accepted a spontaneous invitation from Nassim to sing at the new opera house now nearing completion in Cairo.
The popular belief that Aida was composed for and performed at either the opening of the old Cairo Opera House or the opening of the Suez Canal, or both, is apparently false. The Cairo Opera opened on November 1, 1869, with Rigoletto, and the Suez Canal opened 15 days later, both before Verdi had agreed to compose the music for Aida .
In fact, there is some doubt if, by then, Verdi had even been asked to write an opera for Egypt. And if he had, he certainly could not have completed it in time for either inauguration.
What actually did happen is described by Verdi in a series of letters to his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, and to Camille du Locle, the director of the Paris Opera Comique, who secured Verdi's services for the Viceroy of Egypt, Khedive Ismail.
"At the end of last year," Verdi wrote Ricordi in June 1870, "I was invited to write an opera for a distant country. I refused. When I was in Paris [in the spring of 1870], du Locle opened the subject and offered me a large sum of money. Again I refused."
At this point the Khedive became impatient. "If M. Verdi does not accept," his agent, the French Egyptologist Auguste-Edouard Mariette, wrote to du Locle, "His Excellency begs you knock on another door .... Gounod and even Wagner are being considered."
Du Locle, however, persisted. "A month later," Verdi wrote Ricordi, "he sent me a printed précis , saying it was the work of an important personage (which I do not believe), that he thought it good, and please would I read it."
While the money had not tempted Verdi, the story did. "I found it first-rate," he wrote Ricordi, "and replied I would set it to music." But the authorship of the opera libretto continued to puzzle Verdi. "Who did it?" he demanded of du Locle. "It shows a very expert, experienced hand that knows the theater very well."
Far from it, said du Locle. "The Egyptian libretto," he replied, "is the work of the Khedive and Mariette Bey, the famous antiquary; nobody else has had a hand in it." Later, however, du Locle dropped the attribution to the Khedive as co-author, stating categorically in 1880 that "the first idea of the poem belongs to Mariette Bey."
Even without that credit, Mariette would still probably be remembered for his work as an archeologist. His discoveries, including the Temple of Serapis and the tombs of the Apis Bulls at Memphis, have been described as among "the most important and rarest ever made in Egypt."
Mariette was made Inspector of Monuments in Egypt and given the title of bey by the Khedive, whom he served in numerous capacities. It was Mariette, for example, who signed the contract with Verdi on behalf of Ismail. (The composer was paid 150,000 French francs and retained rights to the opera in all countries except Egypt.) And it was Mariette who supervised the designs for the scenery and costumes of Aida , famous in their own right for their attention to historical detail.
In his music, Verdi seems to have hit upon a piece of archeological exactitude by accident. Two trumpets discovered decades later in the tomb of Tutankhamen produce the same unique tones as Verdi's two sets of modern trumpets, the one pitched a minor third higher than the other, in his celebrated Grand March.
The third major contributor to Aida was Verdi's Italian collaborator Antonio Ghislanzoni, who wrote the opera's moving verse. An unconventional character who once startled Milan by appearing in the city's cathedral square dressed as a general of ancient Rome, Ghislanzoni had been in turn a medical student, a musician, an opera baritone, a journalist, a novelist and a playwright. His theatrical and literary experience made him an ideal partner for an operatic composer.
Aida began to take shape during the summer of 1870, and by the end of August the first two acts were almost finished. Even war did not halt the process of composition, though it did delay production: Mariette was trapped for four months in the Prussian seige of Paris with all his designs. Although he did manage to stay in touch with Verdi - by messages carried on balloons launched from the roof of the Théatre National de l'Opéra - the opening of Aida had to be postponed.
Originally scheduled to open at Cairo's sumptuous red, white and gold opera house in January 1871, Aida didn't see the curtain go up until December 24, 11 months later than planned. Then, however, the opera, with its cast of 300 including Arab trumpeters, was an immediate success; six weeks later the production set off on a triumphal tour of Europe.
Although Rigoletto and Il Trovatore have been performed more times than Aida - they were written 20 years earlier - Aida remains the most popular of Verdi's operas. It has been translated into 20 languages and sung all over the world, but never, apparently in Arabic - the language of the country that commissioned it.
Verdi was curiously indifferent about the first production in Cairo. He did not even go to Egypt, angered by the negative publicity to which his new work was subjected - apparently because it was commissioned by a foreign ruler. To the correspondent of a Milanese newspaper, Verdi wrote indignantly of "wretched tittle-tattle that adds nothing to the worth of an opera, but rather obscures its true merits. It is deplorable, absolutely deplorable."
Success despite controversy thus marked Aida's first performance in Egypt, as well as its latest one. Guiseppe Verdi would undoubtedly have sympathized with Fawzi Mitwali - but, Pladdo Domingo was asked, would he have appreciated the production?
"I think he would have been satisfied," replied Domingo, "but the music – he would have liked to hear it better."
John Lawton, a contributing editor of Aramco World, was in Luxor for the performance of Aida.