Opera Bites: Lavish Egyptian sets steal the show in Met's 'Aida'

Friday, October 23, 2009
Violeta Urmana in the title role and Dolora Zajick as Amneris in in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Verdi's "Aida." (Marty Sohl ~ Metropolitan Opera)

On Saturday the high-definition broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera will be Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida." The performance begins at noon at the Town Plaza Cinema in Cape Girardeau.

Aida is the Ethiopian slave of the Egyptian princess Amneris. Both of these women are in love with Radames, a captain in the Egyptian army. Radames is tricked into betraying his country and as a result of this, he and Aida are buried alive in a tomb. Amneris is left behind and bitterly regrets her part in the death of the man she loves.

The setting for "Aida" is ancient Egypt. The libretto for the opera was taken from a story written by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. In 1851, Mariette began excavating in the desert around Saqqara. He discovered the underground tomb complex of catacombs where the Apis bulls had been buried. He found thousands of statues and some enormous sarcophagi. Mariette was also instrumental in the founding of the Archaeological Museum in Cairo. Who better, then, to write a story about ancient Egypt?

The sets used in the Met production are so realistic that you will be transported back to the Temple at Karnak or the little jewel of a temple on the island of Philae. The Triumphal Scene is one of the most elaborate and spectacular scenes ever mounted at the Met.

In spite of the lavishness of the opera, the story is really about three people -- Aida, Radames and Amneris. Verdi has created a magical Egypt around these characters, and his music reflects their hopes and dreams. It is one of his most beautiful and moving operas.

However, not everyone liked the opera when it first appeared on the stage. It seems there was a man who lived in the province of Reggio Emilia. He went to Parma to see a performance of "Aida" and hated it. He wrote to Verdi and asked him to pay for his opera ticket, his train fare and his supper. Verdi told his publisher to pay for the train and opera tickets -- but not for the man's supper.

Barb Herbert of Cape Girardeau is an opera lover and host of Southeast Public Radio's "Sunday Night at the Opera."

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