The Libretto of Aida

To this day there is considerable confusion over what the actual source of Aida was. Was that original synopsis written by Mariette himself? By the Khedive? By the Khedive with help from Mariette? Did Mariette steal the synopsis from his brother Eduoard who had begun a novel entitled La Fiancée du Nil?

Mariette did indeed send a synopsis of the Egyptian story to du Locle who passed it along, with four or five other prospects, to Verdi. But Verdi was evidently never completely clear as to the story’s provenance. Nine years after the premiere in Cairo a controversy over the source of the libretto boiled over in Milan’s musical press. Du Locle wrote a public letter insisting on Mariette’s authorship. In the midst of this Verdi wrote to du Locle: “I’m utterly taken aback. I think you will remember yourself that you sent me four little printed pages without any author’s name; you told me that the Khedive would like an opera on that subject because it’s an Egyptian one. I supposed that the author of those pages was the Khedive himself. All I knew about Mariette Bey was that he had been commissioned to look after the costumes, etc.”

As if this wasn’t enough, Auguste Mariette’s brother Edouard joined the fray, accusing his own brother of having plagiarized the synopsis from his unfinished novel, La Fiancée du Nil. More recently, writer Matteo Glinski suggested in 1954 that the entire story was based on a libretto by Metastasio, the great eighteenth century poet who essentially defined the opera libretto for many generations of Italian composers. The work was called Nitteti and it was set to music by no fewer than 13 composers. Verdi scholar Julian Budden dismisses this theory as “the reddest of herrings” but a complete description and argument in favor of this theory can be found in Charles Osborne’s The Complete Operas of Verdi. At this point the jury is still out, but Osborne’s drawing of parallels between Aida and Nitteti makes for interesting reading.

Budden points out that the love triangle is so common a plot in opera that many different sources could have inspired its story, as it is nothing more than that rather creaky plot placed within the context of a culture that had sparked the imagination of nineteenth century audiences, especially in Italy and France where many of the spoils of Egyptian exploration had been rudely and permanently ensconced.

One very interesting point is made by Budden in his brilliant three-volume study, The Operas of Verdi. Although Mariette’s synopsis is incredibly rich in theatrical detail, “…for all his insistence on correctness of dress and appearance, [he] was not a great stickler for accuracy in matters of custom. His original synopsis is full of anachronisms and historical impossibilities: the Pharaohs always commanded their armies themselves [therefore no need for the character of Radames!], never attacked by surprise [hence making the great conflict about Egypt’s secret plans between Aida and her father null and void!], never erected triumphal arches [rendering the Triumphal Scene unnecessary!] and never worshipped the god Vulcan [erase all references to Phta!!].” Budden concludes, “Fortunately such solecisms are for the Egyptologist rather than the music-lover to worry about.” —The bracketed comments are by the author of this article, Nicolas Reveles