This opera has been produced more often than any other work in the international repertoire, but it is quite surprising that it ever came to be produced at all, because Verdi hesitated for a long time before accepting the commission to compose it. Never the easiest of men to deal with, he took offence at being asked to write a historical work for a special occasion. "I am not accustomed to compose morceaux de circonstance',was his brusque reply - and the fact that he used a French phrase to describe the sort of work his clients had in mind makes him seem all the more cantankerous - to the suggestion that he should supply a piece to commemorate the official opening of either the Suez Canal (which was already in action in any case) or the Cairo Opera House. Since Verdi had already turned down a request to provide a celebratory anthem for that theatre, one can only admire the tenacity of Ismael Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, in persisting with his efforts to get Verdi on the pay-roll. Indeed, the fee offered to Verdi - 150,000 francs, higher than any sum handed over to any composer before - must have been an inducement Verdi found it extremely difficult to overlook.
Was Verdi merely cynical in churning out the opera, taking the money and running? His attitude to the work in progress was distinctly ambiguous. On the one hand he seemed not to have any interest in the subject-matter. "Egypt is a land which once possessed a grandeur and a civilisation which I could never bring myself to admire", he stated with his customary crotchety bluntness. One might add that he didn't seem to bring himself to find out anything about it either, since the text is full of anomalies which are frankly ridiculous. Amneris suspects Aida's love for Radames because Aida alternately blushes and turns pale, but Verdi was apparently unaware that this would be a difficult feat for any Ethiopian, just as he unquestioningly set the verses that repeatedly refer to Ethiopia as a country full of sweetly-scented forests and cool shady valleys! He even broke his usual conscientious practice of supervising the first productions of his operas - when AIDA finally received its premiere in Cairo in December 1871, Verdi's reactions were detached and sarcastic.
On the other hand, Verdi was clearly not writing a pot-boiler. Having been presented with a libretto in French, Verdi brought in his obedient house librettist Ghislanzoni to recast it in Italian verses - and insisted that Ghislanzoni incorporated all of Verdi's own suggestions as well. In addition, three experiences combined to make the composer very deeply emotionally involved with what he was writing.
The first was falling quite headily in love with the Czech soprano Terezie Stolz. Because she was to sing the role of Aida, Verdi changed his mind about the opera's title and its emotional centre of gravity. Having considered calling the opera AMNERIS, after the most powerful character in the cast, he found himself being increasingly fascinated by her rival in love, whose feelings he explored with total commitment in her two complex and heartfelt arias.
The second was the Franco-Prussian War, which coincided almost exactly with AIDA's gestation period. Verdi was of course affected by the spectacle of a grim militaristic state reinforcing its own power by swallowing up a neighbour who never expected to lose. He was quick to see Prussia as a parallel to his own vision of an aggressive and xenophobic Egypt and even instructed the pliant Ghislanzoni to flesh out the Priests' chorus before the famous Grand March by versifying part of Kaiser Wilhelm I's victory speech after the Battle of Sedan. The character of the deposed King Amonasro also owes much to Verdi's response to the fate of Napoleon III. Ironically, the war played a direct part in the creation of the opera, as the scenery and costumes for the first production had been made in Paris and could not be shipped out when the city was besieged by the Germans, thus obliging the premiere to be delayed!
The third seminal experience was the fact that Verdi was becoming increasingly aware that the hidebound rules and conventions of nineteenth-century Italian opera were being made to look fossilised by Wagner's more modern style of composition. Anyone who suggested that Verdi was becoming a Wagnerite was likely to get a giant flea in his ear, but the similarities between Aida and Lohengrin cannot be coincidental. Verdi even went to see Lohengrin shortly before Aida was premiered. The luminous prelude with its shimmering strings, the leitmotivs, above all the refusal to fit the opera's content into rigid forms, go to show that far from dashing it off to fulfil a contract Verdi was using his latest work to change the shape of Italian opera and drag it kicking and screaming into the new, tradition-free Wagnerian age. Quite an achievement for a morceau de circonstance!
Aida today poses enormous challenges for a director, who has first of all to balance the demands of the grandiose spectacular scenes involving the chorus (or in the case of the Grand March scene, all three distinct choruses) with those of the intimate encounters between the three main characters. Aida is above all an opera of duets and trios as the dogged tug-of-love takes its relentless course, and a director has the task of changing the focus from the broad canvas to the intimate detail and back again.
While I was reflecting on how best to achieve this, I concluded that what Verdi thought important or unimportant was the most helpful guide. Bath Opera's current production pays no more attention to historical or geographical accuracy than Verdi did. The simplicity of the set and costumes is intended to focus on the raw and general force of the cruel story rather than gift-wrap it in the clichés of Victorian attitudes to archaeology. Without the unhelpful trappings, the work can emerge as the stark classical tragedy it really is, the struggle to the death of two desert tribes who fight each other out of hysterical and irrational racism. Verdi didn't strive for accurate Egyptology, and his opposing armies could have come from any two countries with a common but contested border.
On the other hand, the existence of a contemporary war makes the work as disturbing now as it was when Verdi felt the Prussians breathing down his neck. Prisoners of war in prison-camp pyjamas, white-robed priests determined to be upholders of harsh and oppressive laws, a frail head of state dominated by soldiers and politicians - all these are as present on our TV screens now as they were in Verdi's mind in 1871 or for that matter in Egypt in 1198 B.C. When I see the characters in AIDA struggling to free themselves from the stranglehold of fanaticism and a destructive propaganda machine, I am sharply reminded of what an alarmingly modern opera it is.