In 1869 Ferdinand de Lesseps completed his work on the great Suez Canal, opening a maritime waterway between Port Said on the Mediterranean and Suez on the Red Sea. To mark this momentous achievement, the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, decided to build a new opera house in Cairo. The Khedive was a great admirer of Giuseppe Verdi and asked the composer to write an ode for the occasion, but Verdi refused. Instead, the work that opened the new Khedival opera house in Cairo on November 1, 1869, was Verdi's earlier opera Rigoletto.
The Khedive was not to be deterred, however, so when the Egyptologist Auguste Mariette suggested a story he had written entitled Aïda, based on an Ethiopian princess enslaved by the Egyptians, it was thought an excellent tale for a new opera by Verdi. The Khedive instructed Mariette to approach the composer. After much deliberation, Verdi agreed and on December 24, 1871, Aïda premiered in Cairo to great success. A few months later Aïda was heard for the first time in Europe at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, establishing this most popular of works firmly in the operatic repertoire, where it has remained ever since.
Houston Grand Opera welcomes Carlo Rizzi, who is making his company debut, to conduct this passionate, dramatic, and enthralling work. Maestro Rizzi, music director of Welsh National Opera, is acclaimed internationally for his conducting of Verdi operas.
Playbill: What has been your relationship with the opera, both as an audience member and as a conductor?
Carlo Rizzi: I saw Aïda for the first time when I was quite young, and because so much of the music is so well known — for example, the Triumphal March — I always thought of the opera as a great spectacle complete with elephants. However, when I came to conduct Aïda at the Met, having studied the opera in very great detail for some time, I realized that apart from the Triumphal March, the opera is an intimate work focusing on the private emotions of the characters. I also believe that the music is far more developed than the words written by Ghislanzoni; the text is quite simple, while the music is of the highest emotional and dramatic quality.
Playbill: Who is the most interesting and complex character in the opera?
Rizzi: Amneris! She is very often portrayed as a wild virago going around screaming and cursing at everybody; however, she needs to be portrayed far more sympathetically. Her words can be very angry, almost one dimensional, but her music is full of changing emotions. You must remember that she is a young girl who is very much in love with Radames, and when she thinks that Radames may be in love with someone else, even though her words are hard and passionate, the music depicts her vulnerability. I feel that the music Verdi writes is far more varied and refined than the words she actually sings.
Playbill: What is the color of the opera's music?
Rizzi: Didn't you know that I am color blind?! I never think of music as color — rather, I think of it as different feelings. Aïda for me is the beginning of the future for Verdi, with moments like the Triumphal Scene for soloists, chorus, and orchestra — an example of total mastery. There is the nocturnal music, the lyrical music, fantastic innovation, and although the music on the page of the score can seem simple, it is wonderfully rich in feeling and sentiment.
Playbill: How would you put Aïda into the musical context of Verdi's canon?
Rizzi: The remarkable thing about Verdi is how every opera becomes a stepping-stone to the next. Aïda, for example, is fundamental to the final two operas that followed, Otello and Falstaff. It is fascinating to compare Don Carlos, the opera composed before Aïda, with its many revisions, to his final opera, Falstaff, which he wrote with only two corrections. At 80, Verdi had learned to focus on what was important musically and dramatically; anything superficial was discarded.
Playbill: How "Egyptian" is the music in the opera and how did Verdi create this musical world?
Rizzi: I don't believe that Verdi intended to re-create an Egyptian sound world, unlike Puccini who made studies into Chinese gongs for Turandot or Japanese songs for Madama Butterfly. Verdi does use compositional technique, for example, in the scene with the priestesses when he writes for offstage harps and uses minor triads with a diminished or flattened second note to create a certain exotic effect; however, this music is not the outcome of intensive study into Egyptian music. It's merely what he feels is emotionally suited to the scene.
Playbill: I know that you have already conducted Aïda at the Metropolitan Opera. Will your interpretation be different this time?
Rizzi: Yes, it is a new production, so the process will be completely different. The music and the drama influence each other, creating something new. What I want to do is to underline the love and the passion, the very intimacy of the score.
Playbill: Why do you think, in common with many of Verdi's operas, Aïda explores the conflict between the personal/emotional and the public/political?
Rizzi: You must remember that Verdi was composing at the time of the great nationalist movement, the Risorgimento, and the theme of oppressor and oppressed is common in many of his operas. In Aïda, the personal relationships are more important than the fight between the Egyptians and Ethiopians, which is a direct contrast with Don Carlos, in which the struggle between the Church and State dominates the characters. Even in La traviata, the great duet for Germont and Violetta is not really about two people but the beliefs of two opposing societies.
Playbill: What are the particular challenges of conducting an opera that is as well known as Aïda?
Rizzi: Many people will know the opera from recordings; the challenge is to make them listen to it in the theater as if for the first time. The personal challenge for me is to be true to the music and the text.
Playbill: Do you like the opera, and if so, why?
Rizzi: Yes, very much. I love it. All opera is fiction, but I believe that Aïda deals with real problems and feelings: the drama of love, of rejected love, of patriotism, all the values that Verdi used in his great operas. In Aïda they are very human, very real, and very plausible. And the music is phenomenal.
Colin Ure is the dramaturg for Houston Grand Opera.